'Wind' sails effortlessly only when it is seaborne

September 11, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

At last, a new wrinkle. "Wind" isn't a "Hey, kids, let's put on a show movie," it's a "Hey, kids, let's build a $4 million, world-class 12-meter racing yacht" movie, with Matthew Modine in the Mickey Rooney part and Jennifer Grey as Judy Garland.

Every bit as preposterous as I have just made it sound, the movie squanders the fresh and previously unexamined world of ocean racing by burying it under a ballast of formula and bombast. In fact, in one sequence, the American boat Geronimo lies in becalmed waters, desperate for the stuff of the title. Hey, all they had to do was read from the script and the hot air would have sent Geronimo barreling along faster than a PT boat.

Neither Modine nor Grey is a particularly interesting actor; I kept thinking that other, more charismatic people must have turned this script down. They play a defrocked tactician whose blunder costs America the America's Cup, and his aeronautics-engineering girlfriend who throw in with a weird German exile in Nevada (Nevada!) to build a new yacht and get that dang cup back. The story is said to be "loosely based" on Dennis Connor's story -- he lost and won a Cup -- but poor Modine never comes close to getting the gentleman-killer intensity of Connor.

In some respects, the film seems like "The J. Crew Catalog: The Movie." It's full of lean WASPy looking dudes in funky clothes who strike portentous poses against the wine-dark sea or the 7-Up-light desert, as the case may be. There's very little actual penetration of character; everyone is a model or a symbol of an attitude rather than a real person, and somehow the movie never feels intimate or remotely believable.

It's actually more a document of photography than drama. Director Carroll Ballard was (and is) one of the great cameramen of all time, and his compositions often are arresting. And also irritating. You notice the sheer beauty of the photography, the way he captures the best light in each shot and the way he finds new ways to photograph old things. He can make the prow of a yacht look like the nose cone of an Atlas missile and the jawline of Matthew Modine look like the prow of a yacht. But when you're noticing the preciousness of the imagery, everything else in the movie is dead in the water.

The banalities mount. Cliff Robertson plays the millionaire sailor-boy undone by Modine's blunder, which makes him batty. Meanwhile, out in the desert, Modine, Robertson's daughter (Rebecca Miller), Grey and the weird German (Stellan Skarsgard) seem to glue and staple together one of the highest-tech, most R-and-D'd vehicles on earth in about seven minutes. In two more minutes, they've qualified for a go at the Cup, and then movie cuts to the last race.

Only when it's seaborne does "Wind" come alive. Ballard puts you there, on the bow plank or the starboard midriff or whatever, of the sleek, air-powered lovelies as they joust and pirouette among the waves. It's like being on the deck of the Bonhomme Richard as it lobs beer kegs of molten lead at the Serapis, and dodges same. This is amusing, even if the ever-irksome Modine keeps yelling "Tack, Tack," whatever that means, and other WASPs start pulling on ropes. I do suspect there's been some simplifying of yachting tactics: Geronimo's secret weapon is "a really big sail." Like, nobody ever thought of that before?

But other than that, "Wind" is strictly down to the doldrums in ships.

'Wind'

Starring Matthew Modine and Jennifer Grey.

Directed by Carroll Ballard.

Released by Tri-Star.

Rated PG-13.

... **

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