It opens with a cliff of water, rising, surging, bullying, bouldering then folding into a booming clap. Another wave rises. A surfer breaks from the froth, cuts the spray, muscles out of the rush and carves into the clear. Any minute and you expect the Old Spice orchestra to strike up. And then it does.
With his kinetic cuts and restless jukebox (Basement Jaxx, The Stray Cats, Pearl Jam, Bill Hailey), there's no doubting that Stacy Peralta's dynamic follow-up to exceptional skateboard doc Dogtown And Z-Boys captures the thunder and buzz of big-wave surfing. Pitched at a roaring pace (typified by a cheeky thousand-years-of-surfing-in-two-minutes primer), there's some terrific stuff here: getting scruffy with the '50s beachbums who kickstarted the scene; John Milius laughing about his parents regarding his surfing obsession as some sort of mental disease; Laird Hamilton tow-surfing a huge white fist of a 10-storey wave. The ribbing Hollywood gets for emasculating the subculture with the likes of beach-teen nonsense Gidget is also good for a snort ("Man, that makes me wanna puke," hoots surf pioneer Greg Noll).
Still, for all the visual flamboyance, truth be told, Riding Giants gets a little lumpy in the telling. In waxing up every single aspect of board-life (sociological, spiritual, historical, cultural and, in all seriousness, geographical), there's a nagging feeling that Peralta's chewed off too much material here.
In Dogtown, the director shared a sidewalk intimacy with his subjects; you knew why they lived to skate. Here, you get a lot of distant, misty stares, mystical blabber about "the hydraulic maelstrom" and quasi-religious jawing about the might of Mother Nature. So, while you've got to admire the film's sheer width and ambition, it ultimately lacks depth, bailing in the shallows when it comes to explaining what makes these guys tick. No mistake: it's an entertaining, at times exhilarating celebration of the granddaddy of Extreme Sports. But ultimately, the spectacle outweighs the substance.