At the time of this review's initial publication date, the presidential election is a little more than a week away, and much attention has been focused on which candidate would make the best leader. The impact of such leaders, however, isn't limited to just politics. When Steve Jobs passed away, everyone worried about what would become of Apple without his vision. When a professional football team loses its quarterback, all attention is paid to the backup and whether he can provide the leadership the team needs to win.
And that's all because most everyone has differences -- some major, some small -- in terms of their style, abilities, vision and their chemistry with the other "players" in whatever endeavor or arena in which they're participating. The same holds true in filmmaking, although it's not that often that a director ends up benched (by the producers or studio) or injured to the point that he or she cannot continue with their duties.
But that was the case with "Chasing Mavericks," the fictionalized big-screen adaptation of the life and times of a young surfer named Jay Moriarty who, in the 1990s, became the youngest person ever to surf California's legendary Mavericks. For those not into surfing or are not familiar with that name, it's a surfing location in Northern California about two miles offshore near Half Moon Bay where -- if conditions are ideal (or just plain nuts depending on one's viewpoint) -- waves can reach up to 80 feet in height.
Director Curtis Hanson (who made a name for himself with the fabulous "L.A. Confidential") started out as the director of this pic, but was eventually replaced by Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas in the Mist" and the Bond flick "The World Is Not Enough") for reasons not explained in greater detail beyond "health issues." Whatever the case, the resultant movie feels more like a messy rip-off of "The Karate Kid" rather than the intended inspirational drama that hoped to match the insider surfer motto, "Live like Jay," based on the real life surfer's life story.
As penned by Kario Salem and Brandon Hooper it resembles the old Mr. Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso story enough that you half expect the arrival of the famous "wax on, wax off" material since, well, you know, surfers apply wax to their boards for better traction. Thankfully, that doesn't pop up, but much of the rest of the story is too close for comfort.
There's the teenager (Jonny Weston) who lives with his single mom (Elisabeth Shue), likes a local girl (Leven Rambin) and must contend with the school bully (Taylor Handley). While the wise mentor (Gerard Butler) doesn't teach Jay how to fight (on land or in the sea), he does teach him how to prepare to surf the big waves at Mavericks. And with that comes the various bits of repetitive practice, mindset alignment and such to the point that beyond the wax element, I also imagined the boy striking the "Karate Kid" crane pose while surfing.
Don't get me wrong. I don't have it out for surfing movies. In fact, I love them. Or at least I hope to love them as I've always been drawn to the sport, those who participate in it, and the awe-inspiring visuals of seeing the scope of a teeny tiny figure racing ahead of tons of water growing to incredible heights behind the brave soul.
Much of that footage here is indeed awesome to behold, even if a few of the shots appear to have been digitized to one degree or another (although all of it's better than the old style of surfing movies where actors stood in studio sets while the waves were projected behind them). But for all of that oceanic majesty, neither Butler (who reportedly nearly drowned during film when caught by a set of rogue waves) nor Weston come off as the real deal.
Yes, we get the intended emotion and motivation behind their behavior -- after all, it's spelled out in obvious, large letter blocks -- but it still doesn't feel organic. Watch any surfing documentary (or even a brief clip at the end of this film with the real dude) and you'll see and sense it in the eyes, voice and overall demeanor of such folks. They're drawn to the sea and battling but also coexisting with some of its greatest forces. But it's all faux here, despite the good intentions of making an uplifting film, and the clunkiness and stereotypes of the plot don't help matters as they only get in the way.
There's no way to know if things would have ended up for the better had Hanson completed his work or if Apted had been at the helm from the get-go. And no outsider will ever be privy about whether the transition had any ill effect on the overall production. Whatever the case, the end result of "Chasing Mavericks" might not be a complete wipeout, but it's far away from hanging ten in any sort of awesome way. It rates as a 4 out of 10.