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When surfers battle waves, 'Liquid' wins

One-on-one confrontations with nature are at the heart of a film filled with unexpected characters.

August 08, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Step Into Liquid" is just what it sounds like: an enticing invitation to get your feet wet in the world of surfing, to experience the beauty and feel the rush of this most addictive of pastimes, a sport its partisans insist they will take with them "to the grave."

Dana Brown, the film's writer, director and editor, is the son of Bruce Brown, who introduced the world to "The Endless Summer" in 1964. With cinematographer John-Paul Beeghly and a group of intrepid surf-cam operators, Brown has expertly captured the exhilarating and terrifying experience of watching surfers attack waves so preposterously large and ridiculously beautiful they defy description.

It is the human factor that "Liquid" emphasizes at all times, the fact that, as the film tells you right off, there are no special effects and no stuntmen employed. In fact, it is this one-on-one confrontation with the power of nature that makes this film of interest and adds a humbling element to surfers' personalities. As Gerry Lopez, a veteran of Hawaii's Pipeline, puts it, "you're thinking, 'I'm gonna die.' It's so scary that at that moment, maybe you do die a little bit."

The Pipeline is not the only overwhelming wave shown. "Liquid" also joins tow-in surfers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, pioneers of the controversial practice of using jet skis to get close enough to ride mammoth, previously unridable waves. And it goes out to Cortes Bank, 100 miles off the coast of San Diego, to take advantage of a once-every-decade opportunity to surf 60-foot-plus-high waves.

But because Brown wants to put together a kind of ultimate surfing movie, one that alternates between thrilling visuals and human interest stories, he has turned out a cultural kaleidoscope that takes viewers to some of the least likely corners of the surfing world.

So off we go to Sheboygan, Wis., the center of a thriving Lake Michigan surfing culture. Or Galveston, Texas, where the thing to do is surf in the wakes created by supertankers plying the shipping channel in the Gulf of Mexico. The people Brown puts on camera are just as unexpected. There are the Malloys, a trio of Ojai kids who brought surfing to County Donegal, Ireland, where the ocean is understandably thought of as "this cold, dark thing." There's Taj Burrow, an Australian phenom, and Jesse Billauer, who surfs despite being paralyzed. And the venerable Dale Webster, who has gone out every day for more than 25 years and shows no signs of stopping.

Given how satisfying this looks, it's unfortunate that Brown's narration has irritating problems. Its corny, gee-whiz nature seems anachronistic, as does its unnecessary defensiveness about the value of surfing and its hint of chauvinism when talking about the film's spectacular footage of female surfers.

Fortunately, it's easy to push the troublesome voice-over out of your mind. What the film's surfers are constantly telling you turns out to be true: It really is all about the wave. When it's breaking on screen, little else really matters.

*

'Step Into Liquid'

MPAA rating: Unrated.

Times guidelines: Very mild, suitable for a young teen audience.

A Top Secret production, released by Artisan Entertainment. Director Dana Brown. Producer John-Paul Beeghly. Executive producers Bruce Brown, Ray Willenberg Jr. Screenplay Dana Brown. Cinematographer John-Paul Beeghly. Editor Dana Brown. Music Richard Gibbs. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 478-6379; and the Regency Lido, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach. (949) 673-8350.

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