Laced with an unsettlingly strong sense of doom, The Perfect Storm is hardly your typical summer blockbuster. The plot's simply one long - but hugely effective - set-piece which contains more action than all the other popcorn-crop put together, while rising above its fellow big-hitters due to some terrifying realism. Indeed, in its depiction of a close group of men vainly challenging nature, this tragic tale is much closer in spirit to Howard Hawks than to John Woo.
The heroes are those tattooed and whiskered men who were the subject of some of the greatest American novels, from Moby Dick to The Old Man And The Sea: fishermen. It even has its own, somewhat less tyrannical, version of Captain Ahab, in the towering figure of George Clooney as Captain Billy Tyne. Obsessively chasing those elusive swordfish, he takes the boat to the limits, while his men keep questioning his ability and soundness of mind.
However, unlike its prestigious predecessors, The Perfect Storm doesn't try for philosophical or psychological depth, and it suffers somewhat from shallow characterisation. There's the lone-wolf captain, the young and inexperienced calf in love (Wahlberg), the tattooed muscleman (Fichtner), the unhappily divorced father (Reilly) and the requisite old grudge. As a result, you can't help feeling that something is missing - and that something is the kind of emotional pay-off audiences experienced when the Titanic sank.
But what The Perfect Storm does have is the greatest and longest tempest ever to buffet the cinema screen. And it's shot with breathtaking virtuosity by Wolfgang Petersen, returning to the water 19 years after Das Boot, the U-boat drama that made his name. Petersen is much more interested in the idea of man versus the sea than man versus man, which is fine, because the fishing scenes, including some painfully explicit and near-fatal incidents, are downright gripping.
Of course, gripping soon makes way for nerve-wrecking once the storm breaks for real, and from then on the movie becomes a non-stop breath-slamming plunge into the most ferocious seascape you've never dipped your snorkel into. It's here that two completely new components are introduced - the plight of a nearby yacht and the coast guard helicopter hovering perilously above - and these nearly wordless rescue scenes are heart-stopping in their intensity. While it's a shame that The Perfect Storm lacks a strong emotional core, you can't deny that its action sequences make for a truly awe-inspiring spectacle.