George Clooney finally landed a blockbuster on Fourth of July weekend, but even he would have to agree that the real star of The Perfect Storm is the storm itself. Based on Sebastian Junger's best-selling account of the 1991 monster tempest that buffeted the New England coast and imperiled a group of Gloucester, Massachusetts fishermen, The Perfect Storm provides a stunning showcase for the visual-effects talents at Industrial Light & Magic. The colliding weather fronts are conjured up with terrifying impact, augmented by sound design that literally pummels the audience. This is one disaster movie that gives the viewer perhaps too much bang for the buck, at the expense of the real-life characters who are ultimately dwarfed by the spectacle.

Clooney plays Billy Tyne, veteran captain of the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail, who is first seen returning with his crew to Gloucester with a meager haul. The fishermen reunite with their loved ones at the rowdy Crow's Nest bar, where we get a glimpse of the Andrea Gail crew's basic domestic situations (or lack thereof). The divorced Billy has a promising flirtation going on with a fellow boat captain, Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), whose mother runs the Crow's Nest, is in love with pretty divorce Christine Cotter (Diane Lane), who hates his dangerous livelihood. Good-natured Dale 'Murph' Murphy (John C. Reilly) is separated from his wife, but has a close bond with his young son, while skinny Bugsy Moran (John Hawkes), desperate for female companionship, tries his best to get a smile out of portly barhound Irene 'Big Red' Johnson (Rusty Schwimmer). The movie hardly bothers to develop its one black character, Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne), a Jamaican who spends his entire time ashore bedding a comely blonde. Also lurking around the bar is 'Sully' Sullivan (William Fichtner), a hothead who soon joins the crew and arouses Murph's hatred.

With their recent slump, the Andrea Gail crew are barely making ends meet, so Billy decides to take them out for one last excursion before the season ends. He plans to sail to the distant Flemish Cap, where his instincts tell him they'll make a bountiful catch of swordfish. What Billy doesn't know is that the powerful Hurricane Grace is on course to meet up with two weather fronts from Canada, and their convergence will produce one of the biggest storms of the century.

There are bad omens along the way: A swordfish grabs hold of Bobby's leg; Murph is swept overboard in an accident (and, wouldn't you know, saved by his arch-enemy Sully). But once the crew makes it to the Flemish cap, they hit the mother lode and their unlucky streak seems to be broken-that is, until their ice machine breaks down and they make the fateful decision to hurry back to Gloucester through the oncoming catastrophe.

As impressive as much of The Perfect Storm is, there simply aren't enough narrative surprises on board. Though based on real people, the cast of characters hasn't been fleshed out beyond convenient movie shorthand. What remains, then, is simply to watch the progress of the mighty storm. Screenwriter Bill Wittliff all but admits that his lead characters can't sustain the film by giving nearly equal weight to the plight of three people on a sailboat and the daring helicopter team that comes to their rescue. Cutting back and forth between the two storylines, director Wolfgang Petersen, who first rose to fame with the classic World War II submarine epic Das Boot, choreographs perhaps the longest storm sequence in movie history, a deadly thrill ride that leaves the audience almost as drained as the poor actors who had to endure weeks of unpleasant 'wet work.'

Though ultimately lacking in depth, The Perfect Storm has much to recommend it: dazzling visual effects, rugged portrayals by its male leads and a most appealing performance by the underrated Diane Lane, a refreshing focus on the economic struggle of the working class, and bonus points for not compromising the true story's downbeat ending. And finally, the poignant knowledge that this tragic tale really happened is enough to elevate the movie beyond just another summer special-effects showcase.

--Kevin Lally