Hot Water is the semi-autobiographical debut feature of longtime stuntman Larry Rippenkroeger, who led a previous life as a professional jet ski racer. His stuntman credits include 10 years working as Bruce Willis’ double, during which he was seriously injured while on the set of Live Free or Die Hard. The long recovery period gave Rippenkroeger time to write, and a decade later, Hot Water finally exists as a film. Not an especially good one, but a completed and capably directed product.
Billy Burnett (Glenn McCuen) is a rich kid with a love of attention and a big dream to be a jet-ski racing champion. His quest for attention is in part due to his hardworking absentee father, Douglas (Michael Papajohn), who just wants his son to go away and maybe learn a little discipline. When his friend Danny — owner of Camel Tow’s towing service — comes up with a plan to distract Billy with the promise of tutelage under former champion jet ski master Jared Harper (Trevor Donovan), Michael jumps at the chance to rid himself of fatherhood for a summer. Billy does, too, in part because he thinks becoming a champion will finally earn him the parental approval he secretly desires.
Along the way, Billy falls in love with the champion women’s skier, Kelly (Nikki Leigh), who is naturally dating his rival, Richard (Brian Combs). Hot Water hits on a lot of sports movie cliches, which isn’t a knock. Those storytelling beats exist because they work. For the most part, the capable cast makes them work here. The final race sequence pits Billy against Richard and Kelly, who are teammates, and the unconventional rules of jet ski racing make for some fun twists in the final stretch. The jet ski sequences are a highlight of Rippenkroeger’s directing, incorporating a lot of GoPro footage to give a cool perspective on the experience of a racer in the heat of the moment.
The script fails, however, at managing a consistently endearing tone. Hot Water desperately wants to mesh the worlds of ’80s sex comedies with jet ski racing. Not a bad idea, particularly when the racing sequences are filmed so well. The comedy bits, though? Awful and endless. Characters — particularly Danny — are consistently making sex joke asides that hang awkwardly over every scene. It goes beyond whether the jokes themselves feel appropriate to modern audiences but whether they even feel appropriate to the story. They don’t. Sex jokes even undercut big dramatic beats. These jokes are so grating, so incessant, that few of the characters are as endearing as they could otherwise be in this type of story. Danny is like someone you’d ditch and block the day after you meet him, and he’s given a hero’s ending. He’s the horndog archetype dialed up to 11, when all the movie needed was, at best a 5.
It’s unfortunate that Rippenkroeger’s good directing is undercut by his own script. The jokes are so bad and so frequent that it’s hard to recommend Hot Water as a whole. I was taken by the racing scenes, but the rest was interminable. Good technical work, but as a whole it left me cold.