The Perfect Storm is a movie about some good fishermen who make inexplicably poor choices and end up in serious trouble during a storm. The movie itself is rather like its own story. Good actors showed poor judgment (this movie) and they ended up in serious trouble due to a sinking script and an overbearing soundtrack.

You’ve got to hand it to this cast — they’re a brave bunch. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, and William Fichtner all give this tired, unoriginal script all they’ve got. Those grim looks on their faces must come from an awareness of just how many cliches are coming out of their mouths. But they dig in their heels and plow on ahead through thirty-foot swells of mind-numbingly bad dialogue until all their emotion and effort is drowned…

…by the worst of the worst James Horner soundtracks. The music broadcasts ahead of time what the emotion of the upcoming scene will be, it swells, and then it crashes over the scene’s most important moments, trumpeting (“tromboning?”) its own self-importance. The ocean’s roar would have been soundtrack enough.

Clooney is Billy Tyne, the captain of a swordfishing boat, who is on an unlucky streak. He returned with disappointing results on his last trip out, his crew is getting melancholy, and Bob, the boat’s owner (the ornery Michael Ironside), is getting angry. Right away it becomes clear: this is a story about the male ego. When Bob tells Billy that he’s “losing it,” Billy decides, against the better judgment of the women who have brains, to take the boat back out for “one last run.” “I’ll bring back more fish than you’ve ever seen,” is his promise.

And so, the crew, after declaring again their undying affection for their loved ones, turn around and leave their loved ones weeping, lonely, and struggling unsuccessfully with New England accents. Even though the music salutes them as noble, there’s no way the viewer can miss the selfishness and rashness of these fishermen.

Try as he does, Director Wolfgang Petersen Das Boot cannot fool us. He cannot make these guys into heroes. With the claustrophobic nature of the small boat in the big ocean, he cooks up moments that recall that tension of his masterpiece, the greatest submarine film ever made, Das Boot. And when the seas get rocky and the storm finally hits (at last!), the action is orchestrated so brilliantly that the audience is ducking, gasping, jumping for air pockets as the boat hurtles, spins, and somersaults through the waves. If there’s ever a rollercoaster called The Perfect Storm, I’m not getting on.

The special effects are the best of their kind. Except for those scenes that try to replicate a sunset on the sea, the ocean looks devastatingly real. The high, dark, looming waves are a beautiful and terrible sight. I found myself taking deep breaths, gathering my wits for each dizzying dive.

Inside the boat, things are just as engaging, as long as we don’t listen. Clooney, although miscast, and Wahlberg are a great team, working with the same intensity that made 1999’s brilliant Three Kings such a surprise. As Bobby, the man torn between a pretty woman and the sea, Wahlberg is the passenger who almost has our sympathy. Yes, he’s crazy to leave behind his true love, but he does have second thoughts, and he does get to see first hand the obsession of the captain that has convinced them all to take on the storm. Wahlberg has that simple-minded likeability that should give him a long and successful career as an action hero. (The thought of seeing him in the lead of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is not displeasing.)

There are other characters on the water who seem to be there only to emphasize that them waves are big and nasty, in case anybody in the audience accidentally enjoys the scenery. And, since the writers are unable to conjure up believable sympathetic chacters, the studio brings in big names to play the parts. Hey… who wants to see Karen Allen thrown into the icy waters? I don’t care who she’s playing, I haven’t seen dear Karen since the 80’s, so I’m on the edge of my seat! Don’t let her drown!

And poor poor Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. One of the finest American actresses working today, overlooked for an Oscar nomination for last year’s Limbo, she’s really in trouble here. Thanks to a little movie she did with James Cameron and Ed Harris called The Abyss, she’s been typecast as “the courageous woman in peril at sea.” She seems as tired of it as I am. Mastrantonio plays Linda Greenlaw, a fisherwoman who sails out alone and communicates by radio with Clooney’s boat and crew. There’s no explanation as to why she has no crew on her boat. Maybe the cost of special effects made it too expensive for Petersen to hire her any partners. Poor Mary’s sole purpose is to yell into the radio, “Turn back, for God’s sake!” She’s the voice of reason, and thus, in this movie, she’s the narrow-minded fool who doesn’t understand the glory of Men.

While Greenlaw calls for the Coast Guard so we can see just what this storm will do to planes and helicopters, nobody bothers to hail the Almighty. That struck me as odd. Whenever there’s a real disaster, you even hear people talking about prayers on the news! Not here. The movies don’t want to bother with a subject that serious. At one point, it occurs to Captain Billy Tyne that maybe it’s time to pray, but nobody ever does. I kept expecting people to start falling to their knees left and right, atheists, agnostics, and believers alike. Nope. That might require humility. That might be an admission of our frailty.

Do I sound resentful? I am. The storm looks perfect, but the real danger here is the tidal wave of mediocrity and clichés. Yep, there’s even an old sea salt hunched over the bar, somebody who’s been there, who knows the dangers of the sea’s full fury, speaking portentous words of doom. I half-expected Robert Urich to show up and start revealing his shark bite scars to the fisherman.

It’s astonishing how dumb Petersen must think we are. He even gives us a weatherman, one who spends his spare time watching the weather charts and worshipping the gathering storm, reminding us over and over, as though we might miss it, just how bad this storm is going to be.

When the half-drowned crew start to get disgruntled by the fact that they actually got wet, all it takes is for Cap’n to shout “Are we men?” and they’re clapping each other on the back like the L.A. Lakers trying to come back from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter. “Yes! We can do it! Ride into the storm!”

There is something to be said for the film’s finale, which might surprise people accustomed to the usual implausible down-to-the-wire Hollywood ending; at least they had the guts to stick with the true story. But no amount of swelling strings and kettle drums can valorize the arrogance of men who can’t listen to reason. If it’s a sign of manliness to cast aside good counsel, family responsibility, and love, and plunge headlong into certain death, than call me whatever you want, but I’d rather head to the market, pick out some fresh salmon, and host a barbecue.

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