MOVIE REVIEW : 'Surfers': 30 Years of Catching the Big Ones

Surfing is perhaps the most photogenic of all sports. The sun beats down on a sandy beach, giant waves crash down from mid-ocean, while the surfers glide agilely through the tunnels of whipped foam. . . . It's a natural for movies.

And when director-photographer-producer-editor Bill Delaney points his camera at the waves and their wild riders in "Surfers: The Movie" (Monica 4-Plex and Town & Country), he has a hypnotic subject, one that almost can't fail.

But Delaney is trying to do something more here: give us 30 years of surfing history from the viewpoint of surfers themselves. He wants to explain the argot--"stoke," "big wave man"--and he wants to show off the personalities of some of the more charismatic surfers like South African-Australian world champion Martin Potter and hipster recluse Mickey Dora. Inevitably, he can't quite make it. He can't give us the culture, the people, the jargon, the history and the sheer sensual excitement of the wave action itself, in less than an hour and a half.

The movie begins to seem cluttered, overpacked. We get torn away from the surfer's majestic one-on-one communion with the ocean, the great tidal pull of the earth. There's too many grins, too many lazy drawls, too many beach-groupie shots, too many cheesy-looking photo backdrops behind the interviewees.

Interestingly, the period Delaney covers here, mid-'50s to now, parallels the rock 'n' roll era--and Delaney uses period rock to underscore all the chronological sections of his memoir: from the surfer anthems of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean to the '60s pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix to the closing lament, Neil Young's plaintive "Long May You Run."

It's a pretty hip score, and there's something almost charming about the raggedness of it, the way Delaney hasn't tried to give his movie a TV beer-commercial sheen. He just cranks up the sound and throws the images out: sequence after sequence of spectacular rides, spills and flips on the scudding surfboards.

There is one excellent fictional surfing movie, ex-surfer John Milius' "Big Wednesday"--with action sequences by IMAX virtuoso Greg MacGillivray. "Big Wednesday" has more feeling and emotion than all of Milius' other movies put together. But, interestingly Milius' actors, even wild man Gary Busey as "Masochist," didn't have the on-screen charisma of Potter or Dora here.

Potter looks like a cynical Golden Boy: Mel Gibson crossed with Sean Penn. Dora seems to be the ultimate free spirit. He obviously doesn't censor anything he thinks or feels, hand-weaving his tales with the easy gestures and sliding delivery of a sun-struck James Dean. A clever movie producer might want to snap these two up when they hang up their boards.

The best thing about "Surfers" (Times-rated Family) is its honest passion for its subject. The weakest thing may be its relative lack of selection: it's ultimately an "inside" movie of greatest impact for other devotees.

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