Freelance captain Finnegan (Treat Williams) accepts a contract to take a group of mercenaries across the South China Sea to an undisclosed location, not realising that he is aiding the group in a heist aboard a massive luxury cruise liner. When they arrive at the liner, however, they find it deserted with signs of a violent struggle. As they investigate, they not only discover survivors – the owner of the ship (Anthony Heald) and a glamorous jewel thief (Famke Janssen) – but also carnivorous eel creatures that have infested the pipes and lower levels.
The best kind of B-movie is the one that knows what it is, knows that its target audience will not be treating it seriously, and then plots and stages its story and characters accordingly. Deep Rising is definitely that kind of a film: written and directed by Stephen Sommers (who would subsequently direct The Mummy), it is packed with action sequences, exaggerated stock characters, humorous dialogue and vicious undersea monsters. Is it a great film? Of course not, but it was never intended to be. Is it a fun film? Absolutely: with tongue firmly in cheek and the cast visibly playing their respective roles to the hilt, it is a wonderfully silly and amiable monster movie.
Everybody plays a cliche. Treat Williams is loud, brash and cocky as freelance captain Finnegan, and demonstrates a lot of charisma in the role. Famke Janssen is good as Trillian – one wonders if the name is Douglas Adams-inspired – and manages to get a fair amount of action without falling into a ‘damsel-in-distress’ routine. Kevin O’Connor rounds up the lead trio as Joey, the requisite comedic relief. O’Connor plays that role well, so much so that Sommers re-used him for the same purpose in The Mummy the following year. Anthony Heald is suitably slimy as the untrustworthy billionaire who financed the cruise liner’s construction.
The group of criminal mercenaries, who all essentially work as fodder for the eel monsters, punch very high above their weight in retrospect. They include the likes of Wes Studi (Dances With Wolves), Djimon Hounsou (Amistad), Jason Flemyng (Snatch) and Cliff Curtis (Sunshine). Not one of them is stretched in any way by their respective roles, but they do ensure each mercenary has a strong presence in the film, and they all give off a suitable amount of menace.
The film’s visual effects are sufficient for purpose. When Harrison Ford pulled out of starring in the film its budget was severely cut back, but to Sommers’ credit it never feels more ambitious than the production team can achieve. The creepy monsters are well designed and wonderfully grotesque, and the film does a great job of holding back their biggest surprise until relatively late in the piece. The film does a solid job of exploiting its ocean liner setting as well. Broadly speaking it all falls into stereotype, but there are enough inventive bits of design, dialogue and plotting to keep it just fresh enough to lift it above the rest of the B-grade pack. This is perfect late-night fodder: take a few friends, stock up on drinks and snacks, and gleefully make fun of the film as you go. After all, why let the film have all the fun?