HBO's version of 'Sea Wolf' sinks in lack of intensity, believability


April 17, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Among the villains of seafaring literature, Jack London's "Wolf" Larsen ranks right up there with Captains Bligh, Ahab and Queeq.

So Charles Bronson, the leather-faced action actor who usually projects a sense of just-barely-contained danger, should make a great choice as London's educated but sadistic seal-hunter, of whom it was said, "no man was better named."

But alas, viewers of "The Sea Wolf," a new cable television version of the action novel premiering this weekend, may find themselves shouting, "Wake up! Wake up!" at the screen for all the malevolence Mr. Bronson brings to the role.

And Christopher Reeve manages only a little more believability as Humphrey Van Weyden, the dilettante writer fished out of San Francisco Bay after a ferry sinking and pressed into cruel service aboard the schooner Ghost. Catherine Mary Stewart's role as the other passenger rescued, seems mostly superfluous.

L The disappointing movie premieres at 8 p.m. tomorrow on TNT.

At least the film was made aboard a real ship under sail, a 1924-vintage schooner actually called the Zodiac. You sense the cramped quarters and the pitch and roll of a sailing vessel on ocean swells, and one great scene is filmed in an obviously real, driving rain storm.

Yet, the realism goes only so far. This Ghost seems far too shipshape to represent the creaky, oily sealing vessel in which London's characters wage a war of moral argument about the nature of man.

Mr. Reeve and Ms. Stewart play acquaintances who survive a collision of a ferry boat and another vessel. Although rescued, they find they are not exactly safe.

Soft-palmed Humphrey is renamed "Hump" by the captain and made the ship's cabin boy, while Flaxen (Ms. Stewart) recovers from injuries under the care of a boozy ship's doctor (Len Cariou).

The crew wants to mutiny; Captain Larsen lusts for revenge against his brother, "Death" Larsen; and the ship's cook (familiar character actor Clive Revill) lusts after Flaxen.

But rarely in "The Sea Wolf" do the characters emerge as more than two-dimensional. And by the halfway point, viewers will be as tired of seeing the same ship-at-sea film footage as they are of the plodding progression of the plot.

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