It’s at once easy and hard to acknowledge Greg McLean’s killer croc flick Rogue as the followup to his breakout feature Wolf Creek. Hard because from beginning to end it traces a path from ineptitude to aptitude that you’d be hard pressed to find in any other 90 minutes of consecutive screen time, to the point that you’ll hope McLean only started to give a damn about what he was doing halfway through production. Easy because when he flips the switch, McLean trusts his instincts and delivers the tension he was able to sustain throughout Wolf Creek, and shows himself capable of managing a higher budget to boot. Shut it off halfway and you’ll think you saved yourself from finishing a sub-Asylum graduate project, all hasty setup, nonexistent suspense, arbitrary stock footage blagged from the Australian tourism board, and a setting convenient enough that a skeleton crew could’ve sweet-talked its way past someone’s girlfriend to commandeer a company boat for a weekend. Stick it through and you’ll see that the movie is unfavorably front loaded with McLean’s weaknesses, and that once he finds his groove he can tap into some impressively chilly tension and emotional resonance.
Probably in a bid for mainstream appeal (made all the more annoying by the fact the Weinsteins picked it up), Rogue’s star is a Chicagoan travel writer played by Michael Vartan, all weary condescension and boredom, on a trip to Northern Australia to report on a river cruise. Dispensing quickly with the fish-out-of-water tension that accompanies him to the sweltering fly storm that is Australia, the movie plops him on Radha Mitchell’s river boat with a rogues gallery of cliched disaster movie characters who are ready to panic at the drop of a bush hat. Here’s where McLean fumbles the setup, finding no better way to meet these characters than to indulge in the stifling awkwardness that comes with sharing a confined space with a bunch of total strangers. So he resorts to trying to flesh them out with awful one-liners, sappy dialogue, and even the age old lazy character detail: the offensive t-shirt. Of course now it’s more interesting to watch thanks to the actors involved who moved onto bigger things. Besides Mitchell and Vartan, Mia Wasikowska has a quiet role and Sam Worthington barges in as a rowdy local and apparently Mitchell’s on-again, off-again paramour, displaying the kind of charisma that James Cameron thought could carry a billion dollar-grossing movie into the annals of cinema history. John Jarratt pops up, too, in a role light years away from Wolf Creek‘s Mick Taylor.
Things pick up when Mitchell follows a distress signal past the tour’s normal operating limits, where the aforementioned killer croc trashes their boat and strands the passengers on a small island with no hope of reaching the outside. It’s in this extended second half of the movie that McLean gets the best character beats as the group struggles to find a way back to shore in the dark while the tidal waters rise around them. Now that he has a ticking clock and a maneater on the loose, McLean somehow snaps into crisis mode and rescues his once-shitty movie like a baby lifting a car off its trapped mother. Wrangling some truly impressive croc special effects, he opts for the Jaws approach, which may come as a disappointment to the gorehounds who relished the seedy violence McLean espoused before. But the longer it goes, the better it gets, and if you can handle the idea of a Yank taking on the worst Australia can offer, then there’s a reason to stick it through the deplorably lame setup process to get there.