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Rime of the Modern Mariner



*The Perfect Storm (R)
Warner Bros.

The summer of 2000's first promised and much-hyped blockbuster, The Perfect Storm (The Patriot doesn't count since the terms Revolutionary War and blockbuster just don't mix), turns out to be a wash.

While there are plenty of white-knuckle moments on the tempest-tossed seas, the film's stolid attempts at inciting reverence for the famed crew of the Gloucester fishing vessel, the Andrea Gail, tend to throw a wet blanket over the compelling true-life events memorably recounted by Sebastian Junger in his best-selling book. Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot) wants us to walk away from the film with a newfound understanding of the perils of offshore fishing, and we do. But Petersen's clunky manner of making this obvious point -- twice scanning the memorial wall that lists the names of all Gloucester's deceased fishermen while James Horner's (Titanic) pompous musical score swells in the background -- feels heavy-handed and artificial.

Better to tell the story through the characters and the natural elements -- a feat at which Petersen and crew only partly succeed. The Perfect Storm follows the misfortunes of the crew of the Andrea Gail, a swordfishing vessel captained by Billy Tynes (George Clooney), a tight-lipped, stern sailor determined to better his luck by making one last, hasty trip out to sea at the end of October, 1991. His crew includes Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg); a salty dog named Murph (John C. Reilly); Sully, a substance abuser with a mean streak (William Fichtner); a West Indian, Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne); and good-natured Bugsy (John Hawkes).

The Andrea Gail ventures farther out than usual in search of the elusive big catch (no mention of the fact that in recent years the waters off Massachusetts have been dangerously overfished and the swordfish population decimated). After hitting the jackpot, they turn about to head home in the face of the storm of the century -- the collision of a hurricane and a nor'easter -- or else linger at sea and sacrifice their bounty. Captain Tynes and crew agree to forge toward home, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The special effects are fun, especially the computer-generated giant swells, but they are less than awe-inspiring. And too often, it feels as if we are watching the same scene over and over -- the captain and Bobby at the helm, driving the boat determinedly forward while being bombarded with buckets of water.

Clooney -- whose every film appearance now screams "movie star!" -- is terse, clipped and brooding as Tynes, until the confrontational scenes with the rising storm when he gets all riled up and starts screaming into the ocean spray: "Come on you bitch!" Whoa. It's hard to pull off a role that gives you such turgid, embarrassing lines as: "Fish will come to the Andrea Gail," but Clooney is up to the task.

And Wahlberg turns in one of his best performances to date as Bobby, recently divorced and now hopelessly in love with gorgeous spitfire Christina, the woman who waits for him onshore, lustfully and convincingly played (except for her overblown Massachusetts accent) by Diane Lane. Reilly is hearbreaking as the sweet, defeated Murph.

Some of the best moments in The Perfect Storm are perfunctory ones that illustrate with realistic detail the rough, gory nature of commercial fishing. The camera watches as the dock is washed of its slimy, blood-red sheen after a catch is brought in, weighed and gutted. Calloused hands reach into the belly of a giant sea beast and pull out entrails as big as a year-old child, shiny, dripping and maroon. Petersen's direction shines in these small moments.

An editor could have done wonders with the film, had he been freed of the director's determined preachiness, but unfortunately we're stuck with what we've got -- a few spectacular scenes and some strong performances mish-mashed with too much forced solemnity and enough clichs to gag a whale. The Perfect Storm is well worth seeing, but it's far from perfect.

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