For a movie that’s ostensibly based on the life of surfer Jay Moriarty, who died at the age of 21 while diving in the Maldives without an oxygen supply, Chasing Mavericks has a suspicious amount in common with The Karate Kid. Nearly every aspect of the Karate Kid formula—the reluctant, emotionally remote mentor who devises an unorthodox training regimen, the gang of bullies who give the hero a hard time, the single, ineffective mother—is present in Chasing Mavericks, except that karate has been replaced with surfing. As it turns out, surfing is probably the sport least suited to The Karate Kid formula. The main reason for this is that karate is a directly competitive sport, surfing isn’t. In The Karate Kid, the conflict between Daniel-san and his bullies comes to an effective and dramatically satisfying resolution when they compete against each in the film’s climactic karate tournament. At the end of Chasing Mavericks, Jay’s bullies simply watch from afar as Jay surfs a really big wave.
This wouldn’t be such a big problem if the subplot with the bullies didn’t occupy so much screen time, or if the bullies had some sort of compelling reason for why they do what they do. But the bullies are introduced right from the film’s opening sequence—just as Jay goes surfing for the first time at the age of 10, a kid who smashes cars with a baseball bat for fun starts giving him problems—and they continue to show up every 15-20 minutes to verbally harass him until they grow bored and then go off to do something else. (Ridiculously, the kid with the baseball in the opening sequence continues to carry a baseball bat around as a young adult). The movie also fails to provide a plausible motive for why the bullies dislike Jay so intensely. In The Karate Kid, the leader of the bullies was one of Daniel-san’s romantic rivals. In Chasing Mavericks, the leader of the bullies seems to dislike Jay simply because he looked at him funny when they were both children.
As thin and poorly developed as the subplot with the bullies is, it’s nothing compared to the subplot involving his best friend (who starts taking drugs or something) or the subplot involving Jay’s love interest (who initially doesn’t see him as a suitable romantic partner, then changes her mind, and well…that’s that). The only story thread that seems fully developed is the mentor/protege plot, and that’s mostly because the mentor/protege plot in The Karate Kid was fully developed, and Chasing Mavericks copies it almost shot for shot.
But the problems with Chasing Mavericks go much deeper than subplots that go nowhere, thinly drawn characters, and an over indebtedness to The Karate Kid. Preposterously, the screenwriters attempt to portray Moriarty’s life story as an inspiring example of life being lived to the fullest. In the final moments, Jay is depicted as a modern day prophet and fountain of wisdom whose “live everyday as if it were your last” attitude is worth emulating. The movie closes with an image of a wall that has the words “Live like Jay” graffitied on to it. What, you mean get killed at the age of 21 doing something reckless? Uh, no thanks.