|The Perfect Storm
review by KJ Doughton,
7 July 2000
A lot of water gets tossed about
in The Perfect Storm. Using the new millenium’s finest special
effects arsenal – plus a few million gallons of H20 – this movie
takes viewers on a vicarious tour of The Atlantic. The highlights
include wind-whipped drizzle, menacing whitecaps, jet-black skies
spitting forth lightning, and hundred-foot swells. Based on
Sebastian Unger’s 1998 book chronicling an ill-fated journey into
churning seas by a Gloucester sword fishing boat, The Perfect Storm is director Wolfgang Petersen’s latest in a
series of larger-than-life actioners that includes Das Boot, In the Line of Fire, and Air Force One. Despite the macho presence of George Clooney and Mark
Wahlberg as deep-sea angling partners aboard the Andrea Gail,
the film’s true star is its storm; a triple-shot of hurricanes
colliding head-on. As
this monster typhoon lays waste to watercraft with the ease of a
garbage disposal chugging down yesterday’s leftovers, the effect
is convincing, and will pass the scrutiny of anyone who’s ever
blown chunks over the side of a salmon charter boat out on choppy
waters. There’s no
feeling quite as helpless.
Why is it, then, that one walks out
of The Perfect Storm with a feeling as empty as the ice chest of a
skunked skipper? Unlike
a summer box-office competitor like The
Patriot, which covers a broad canvas of characters, plotting,
and geography, this film’s story is confined to a much more
personal story. But it’s handled in the manner of a big, loud,
effects-driven blockbuster. That’s
the mistake. Instead of
teaching viewers enough about its characters to make them forget
about the digital effects and action, the script is so generic that
you’re almost salivating to see the Andrea Gail’s
crewmembers nailed by the rotten weather. You feel like a geeky
peeper watching Freddy Krueger gutting teenagers, anxious for the
rush of action, but ashamed that you’re getting entertainment
value out of watching others suffer.
Perfect Storm’s obvious spiritual predecessor,
Titanic, didn’t forget to invest some time in its central
romance before the final, tragic scenes played out.
Watching Jack and Rose dance a forbidden jig with the
downstairs “steerage” was a story in itself: the sinking ship
was a dramatic bonus. It
says something that a movie as massive as James Cameron’s Best
Picture recipient boasted a more intimate love story than The Perfect Storm, which reaches for an epic feel when it should be
embracing its smaller-scale Gloucester group with more detail and
less bang for the buck.
Storm’s various human flotsam and jetsam are introduced at the
Crow’s Nest, a lively dockside watering hole that packs ‘em in
like crowded sardines. Among
the barstool regulars are Billy Tyne (George Clooney, sporting an
unshaven, Don Johnson look), a down-on-his-luck skipper whose
paychecks and catches are both getting smaller, and Bobby Shatford
(Mark Wahlberg), an upstart seaman who spends most of his on-shore
time groping girlfriend Christine Cotter (Diane Lane).
Swigging booze a few tables down are Murph (John C. Reilly),
a human teddy bear to his admiring, towhead son, and Bugsy (John
Hawkes), a lonely runt who makes it to first base with the Bette
Midler-esque Irene (Rusty Schwimmer).
Rounding out this cluster of human driftwood is Linda
Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), another skipper who flirts
with Billy but maintains a tough exterior. Meanwhile, Alfred Pierre
(Allen Payne) is a Jamaican who’s so busy bedding the local women
that he apparently doesn’t have time to mumble more than a few
words during the film’s 129 minute running time.
Perfect Storm’s first few scenes do a fairly good job of
establishing Gloucester’s hard-living, economically tight
subculture of ocean-reliant, blue-collar toughs. Most of the main
characters are recently divorced, juggling the messy aftermath of
child custody, alimony payments, and unreliable incomes. When
fishermen wait in line for paychecks, there’s a convincing tension
generated as boat crews with poor catch quotas are reprimanded with
lower earnings. After this early scene, the short-of-cash Tyne
alerts his men that he’s planning on taking an extra trip out to
sea, and they follow him in search of a catch that will “set the
market” and promise them all weightier reimbursement.
Shatford, Murph, Bugsy, and Pierre round out his crew, along
with a scrappy hothead tagalong named Scully (William Fichtner).
Once at sea aboard the Andrea
Gail, the men crank up some ZZ Top, submerge the baitlines, and
wait for some action. There’s
an inexplicable rivalry between Murph and Scully, who throw punches
and hurl insults to and fro. Later,
when Murph’s hand is impaled by a baithook and he’s yanked
overboard by a taut line, it’s Scully who comes to his rescue.
Much male bonding and reconciliation follows.
Later, when the men huddle inside the boat and grumble about
their crummy, miniscule catch, Tyne rouses them into action like a
sea-bound Bobby Knight. “This
is where the men are separated from the boys,” he proclaims,
wrapping up a stale pep speech.
More bonding, more reconciliation. We’ve seen it before.
All of these introductions and
“characterizations” hardly matter when the three storm fronts
start weaving their black magic spell.
The Perfect Storm
attempts to beef up this impressive attack by Mother Nature, which
is followed by a weatherman in a Massachusetts newsroom, with a
subplot involving the rescue of a yacht via Coast Guard ships and
Air Force helicopters. Under
black skies and seemingly impenetrable sheets of rain, there’s a
spectacular mid-air attempt to refuel a helicopter that brings to
mind a similar set piece from Air Force One. It’s obvious that Petersen feels completely at home
combining high-tech gadgetry with kinetic, nail-biting rescue
scenarios: he’d be a good candidate for the next Tom Clancy
the Andrea Gail is tossed and turned, with similar set pieces
popping up. When an anchor sways loose on a chain, careening through
windows and whipping about like a lethal mace, Tyne is left to climb
the Andrea Gail’s exterior and dismantle it with a
blowtorch. It’s a
There’s no denying that The
Perfect Storm is exciting: if you’re out for two hours of
escapism, it delivers. However,
there’s a formulaic feel to the pacing and plotting, reminding one
that this is only a movie. You’ll
gawk at the forbidding maelstrom of black water and crushing waves,
but never forget that you’re viewing this spectacle from the safe,
snug confines of a local multiplex.
This might be the result of limited emotional involvement
with the Andrea Gail’s doomed crew.
Unlike Jaws, which
threw together an angry old salt, a jittery cop, and a rich-boy fish
expert for a deep-sea shark-hunting expedition and evolved from the
personalities of its trio, The
Perfect Storm really doesn’t invest a minute’s time in
building up its cast. Does
Bugsy’s lack of self-esteem fit into any of the onboard scenarios?
Does the studly Pierre offer any groundbreaking revelations
about his Casanova-style dating techniques?
Do we really get a sense of what drives the courageous Tyne?
Perfect Storm is much like marveling at the great technique of a
fisherman casting into a bathtub.
He might be good at what he does, but what’s the purpose?
Likewise, Petersen’s hellraising tides are a lot of fun to
look at, but his shallow characters are beached on dry land before
these oceanic fireworks even start.
John C. Reilly
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio