Although John Milius is mostly associated with cinematic ultraviolence, as a screenwriter (Apocalypse Now) and as a director (Conan the Barbarian), one of his most assured endeavors in both capacities is the decidedly non-ultraviolent surfing drama Big Wednesday. Wonderfully pretentious from beginning to end, the picture uses the interwoven adventures of three surf-crazy friends as a metaphor for masculine achievement and self-realization against a backdrop of Vietnam and social change. In other words, it’s pure Milius, only without the beheadings. The film’s principal actors contribute some of the best work of their careers, grooving on the macho poetry that distinguishes Milius’ style, and it’s particularly poignant to see Jan-Michael Vincent and Gary Busey in their gleaming youth, given the damage ensuing years has done to both actors. William Katt complements them with the earnest Redford Lite vibe that, one year later, got him cast as a younger version of Redford’s signature character in Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979). Notwithstanding the strong work by the surfin’ stars, characterization takes a backseat to an overall theme of lost innocence, especially when the film cuts forward ten years to show how the turbulent ’60s affected the trio. Furthermore, Milius’ choice to present the movie as a Big Statement about Man and Nature ensures that the ocean is the most clearly defined individual in the film. But, man, the ocean gives a hell of a performance, because some of the wild surfing footage (captured in California and Hawaii) has terrifying power.
Big Wednesday: GROOVY