Roger Cox: Waves of surfing movies come and go, but no great one yet

The cover of Surfer magazine that introduced Jay Moriarty to the world in 1994
The cover of Surfer magazine that introduced Jay Moriarty to the world in 1994
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You’d think Hollywood and surfing would be a match made in heaven – surfing, after all, is one of the most cinematic sports there is. But no. Every time a mass market surf drama gets the green light it always seems to end in farce.

Remember Point Break? The film that gave us such intelligently crafted lines as “Surfing’s the source, man” and “Speak into the microphone, squid brain”? Or what about Surf Ninjas? The 1993 idiot-fest in which three young surfers growing up in LA return to their Pacific island homeland, do chop-socky battle with an evil mastermind wearing a comedy mask and – to quote the toe-curling, dude-speak trailer – “basically kick some ass”? Blue Crush? The less said about that one the better. Surf Nazis Must Die? Deliberately, almost heroically rubbish. No, the only surf film marketed at non-surfers that could be described as anything like an artistic success is Big Wednesday, and although it’s developed something of a cult following in recent years, when it was first released in 1978 it was a box office flop of catastrophic proportions. The critics were harsh, too. Reviewing the film for the New York Times, Janet Maslin gleefully shredded the acting with the immortal line: “Barbara Hale... is quite unconvincing as Mr Katt’s mother. This is a faux pas of no mean eminence; after all, Miss Hale actually is Mr Katt’s mother.”

Under the circumstances, then, it’s a minor miracle that Chasing Mavericks – the latest surf film to roll off the Hollywood production line – ever made it past the pitching stage. Bravely ignoring the form book, however, 20th Century Fox saw fit to pump an estimated $20 million into it and as of next Friday it’s coming to a multiplex near you.

Set in California in the early 90s and starring our own Gerry Butler, the film tells the true story of the late, great Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston), a 16-year-old determined to surf the monster waves breaking at a spot called Mavericks just outside Half Moon Bay. Butler plays Frosty Hesson, one of only a handful of surfers with the skills necessary to ride the place, who eventually agrees to take the youngster under his wing.

Chasing Mavericks was released in the US last autumn, and the reviews on the other side of the pond have been less than glowing. According to one, although the action sequences are “gorgeous,” whenever the film goes ashore “it becomes a half-baked coming-of-age cheesefest – think The Karate Kid with wetsuits.” Certainly Butler’s character has to spout some horrendous, hippy-dippy dialogue. One of his pearls of wisdom is as follows: “We all come from the sea, but we are not all of the sea. Those of us who are, we children of the tides, must return to it again and again, until the day we don’t come back leaving only that which was touched along the way.” Master Yoda could hardly have it put better.

Trouble is, deep down I really want this film to be good. Partly this is because Butler nearly drowned during filming on location at Mavericks, and anyone who’s prepared to take method acting to those kinds of extremes deserves to be in a decent movie. Mostly, though, it’s because Moriarity was an inspirational surfer, and he shouldn’t have his life story presented to the world in a second-rate film.

Like a lot of surfers, I first became aware of Moriarity in the spring of 1994, thanks to a heart-stopping photo on the cover of Surfer magazine. Riding a red, yellow and green board, he was pictured at the frothy summit of a heaving, dark-green, 30-foot death-wave at Mavericks, and it was clear that he was in trouble. Rather than pointing down towards the bottom of the wave, the nose of his board had been caught by the howling offshore wind, and was pointing alarmingly towards the sky. His outstretched arms suggested that he was already in freefall, and that in a couple of seconds he would be deep underwater, being rolled like an ant in a washing machine. The really striking thing about the picture, though, was the caption: “Sixteen year-old Jay Moriarity drops into history at Mavericks”. Sixteen? Sixteen? What on Earth had driven someone so young to surf waves like that? Chances are Chasing Mavericks will be yet another awful surf flick, but still – I’m going to reserve judgement until I’ve seen it for myself.

• Chasing Mavericks (PG) is released on Friday