In The Perfect Storm, Junger offered a meticulous account of the last voyage of the Andrea Gail, a Massachusetts swordfishing boat that ran afoul of Hurricane Grace in 1991. The book offers breathless descriptions of exactly how deadly storms form, the physical process of drowning and the routine dangers faced by fishermen, although Junger's most engrossing passages are more expository than cinematic.
Thankfully, William Witliff's screenplay retains the book's blue-collar point of view. Usually the heroes of disaster movies are improbably glamorous volcanologists, or some such scientist, but the Andrea Gail is crewed by ordinary guys struggling to make a living. The fish haven't been biting for Capt. Billy Tyne (George Clooney), so late in the season he goes out for one more run with five other fishermen, including lovable lug Murph (John C. Reilly), antagonistic Sully (William Fichtner) and rookie Bobby (Mark Wahlberg).
If we didn't know the film's title or premise, we wouldn't care much about these guys, whom we see acting out repetitious cycles of rivalry and bonding. Lines of dialogue hang limply, as Tyne, increasingly driven a la the captains of the Caine or the Pequod, asserts, "I always find the fish! Always!" Meanwhile Bobby's girlfriend (Diane Lane) and the other women wait anxiously ashore, rather like the wives in an astronaut movie. For the film's first act, the swell of the soundtrack is deadlier than the swell on the ocean.
German director Wolfgang Petersen made his international reputation with 1981's U-Boat thriller Das Boot before becoming a big-budget Hollywood hand helming the likes of Air Force One and Outbreak. It's a relief getting him back on the water, and he renders the Andrea Gail in perfect, grubby realism, from the fishermen's convict-orange waders to the shovels they use to ice down their catch.
And when the weather starts getting rough, A Perfect Storm offers tempestuous sequences the likes of which you've never seen. Industrial Light & Magic's special effects team uses a lot of computer imagery, but the results look perfectly credible, with the ocean becoming a savage landscape in a constant state of chaos. Where most cinematic storms stay close to the point of view of the souls on board, A Perfect Storm offers shots of entire ships, at times the scale of bath toys, so we can perfectly grasp their terrifying predicament.
The film also keeps track of an ill-fated sailboat (with a crew including Karen Allen) that gets bailed out by the Coast Guard's rescue team, offering more jaw-dropping sequences. But though the Coast Guard rescuers get to play cavalry and spectacularly risk their lives -- we see their helicopter perilously flying above and around vicious waves -- we learn zero about them, making them indistinguishable. Certainly some scenes of Bobby's fretting girlfriend could have been swapped for scenes at the Coast Guard's base.
The cast are all natural players, with Wahlberg again proving so comfortable on screen as to dispel memories of Marky Mark. Unfortunately, they rarely get more than one note to play, and even their actions during the worst of the weather (making repairs, shouting "Man overboard!") ultimately amount to little more than busywork, something for them to do amid the neat-o visuals. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is welcome in the atypical role of efficient swordboat captain Linda Greenlaw (who, in real life, has written her own memoir following Storm's success).
For want of anything else to say, the movie ends by repeating two characters' speeches from earlier in the film.
While The Perfect Storm is less stupid than such disaster flicks as Twister or Volcano, it's never as compelling or fully-fleshed as Petersen's own Das Boot, or the final shipboard section of Jaws. Still, it undeniably makes good on the promise of its title and trailer, offering the cineplex equivalent of one of those theme park attractions such as Splash Mountain. You won't get wet on this ride, but you'll leave the theater on wobbly legs.