Film Review: Dawn Patrol

By-the-numbers revenge drama starring Scott Eastwood as a laid-back surfer pushed too far by his family has one twist up its sleeve but waits too long to play it.
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The first rule of any surfing film should be self-evident: Capture some good footage. That might not have been the case back in the days of Frankie and Annette, when all that was needed was to sell the idea of surfing culture and then mix it up with some beach-bound shenanigans. In the case of the all-too-clearly low-budget Dawn Patrol, however, the on-shore story has so little going for it that the very least the filmmakers could have done was to pop one’s eyes out with a few moments of beautiful abandon out on the waves. That never happens.

Instead, we start with a heavy-handed framing device in which an exhausted-looking and wounded man in Marine fatigues (Scott Eastwood, taking a break here from an otherwise upward-bending career arc) is being marched over some sand dunes by a masked woman holding a gun. Then we’re back to 2008 and a sluggish drama about a family of blue-collar beach-rats whose sketchy stretch of Southern California sand, we’re constantly reminded, is far from the sun-kissed luxury of Malibu. John (Eastwood), at this point still a carefree civilian, is the only truly mellow one in the bunch. He repairs boards and bums around in a genial, I’ll-get-to-it fashion that the rest of his more ornery clan doesn’t understand. John’s brother Ben (Chris Brochu, delivering a lot of magnetism in an underwritten role) is the star surfer whom everybody has their hopes pinned on.

But John has a problem with anger; also with treating his occasional girlfriend Donna (Kim Matula) like dirt. Those two tendencies collide with ugly results after Ben sees Donna making out with her new guy, Miguel (Gabriel De Santi). A fight results and Donna spends some time afterward in a tug of war between her two guys. Then John finds Ben murdered on the beach and his parents’ booze-and-pot-addled rage turns on Miguel.

Miguel’s apparent Hispanic ethnicity throws more fuel onto an already smoldering problem. One of the film’s first scenes—an ’80s cheese-flick moment there only to include a topless shot—has John and Ben’s apparently alcoholic and rage-filled dad Trick (Jeff Fahey) starting a fight with a couple of Hispanic guys, ostensibly to protect a woman’s honor but really just about protecting “his” bit of beach from non-white intrusion. Resentments about the cratering economy, lack of work, and house repossessions spill out into a generalized ethnic backlash that ultimately informs the film’s crucial tragic decision.

Director Daniel Petrie, Jr., whose resume includes The Big Easy but also a fair amount of substandard action-comedy fare, has little feel for the milieu. The film strives for a renegades-by-the-sea Lords of Dogtown vibe, salted with white working-class humiliation. But the hacky performances, even by the normally reliable Rita Wilson (her Greek-tragedy turn as John’s vengeance-prone mother feels like an audition for “Sons of Anarchy”), and frequently hilarious dialogue (“You’ve got a grave to cry on. Don’t you want one to spit on?”) mean that by the time the film gets to a genuinely interesting moment in the final scenes it will be hard for most viewers to stop stifling their laughter.

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