Point Break (1991)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

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Point Break feels like an action movie made in the same style as Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thunder (1990).  There’s the young, handsome, hotshot hero who finds himself thrust into a new world, led by the grizzly veteran whose ultimate demise serves as an extra motivator for our hero to take down the antagonist.  That hero, in this case Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), is mostly just handsome.  He experiences very little of a character arc beyond the expected love story, and all his challenges are external.

Sure, in the end Utah throws away his police badge, apparently quitting the force, but there is no clear reason for this.  It’s almost just a final image meant to parody other action movies, or maybe the end of Dirty Harry.  But Dirty Harry was always about a police officer who struggled to operate within the law, and Point Break is never about such a thing.

It’s a cool movie, that’s for sure.  Johnny is cool, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) is cool, and all anyone really cares about is chasing the adrenaline high.  The movie bathes in shots of the surfers on the waves, and it seems to do everything in its power to glorify this lifestyle while condemning the button-down, 9 to 5 life of everyone else.  Or maybe it doesn’t, but that’s the only takeaway I had from the ending.  Utah, as his superior notes, is “young, dumb and full of cum,” and at the end he remains the same way.

Point Break both mocks this character and sides with him in the end.  He’s cool, someone the audience might identify with, like he’s the slicker version of every 16 year old in the audience, and yet the script keeps him in line.  Characters make fun of him or try to cut him down, but Utah is always above it.  He either goes with the flow or fights back.  So it’s like the movie itself comes around on his character just as Utah’s veteran partner Pappas (Gary Busey) does.

I like Keanu Reeves.  He’s a good actor, but he does seem to play this type of muted character a lot.  He can be funny and certainly dramatic, with great roles in movies like John Wick or Thumbsucker or even The Neon Demon.  I think he’s less great in his starring action movies, whether it’s Speed or The Matrix.  At his best, Keanu uses his muted disposition for humor.  In those action movies, his silence is meant to make him seem in control, but instead he just seems completely uninteresting, a mostly blank slate as if his character had no personality until two days before the plot of the movie.

Point Break tries to balance those two versions of Reeves.  He gets to be funny, playing a surfer ‘brah,’ but he’s also an idealistic cop, and that frankly gets kind of annoying.  Point Break is loaded with action cliches that, due to the movie’s fame, seem to have worked.  This movie certainly didn’t create these cliches, but instead I think director Kathryn Bigelow just knew how to properly unroll them.

Like in her previous film, 1989’s Blue Steel, Bigelow begins this movie with a police training exercise.  Utah demonstrates his skill with a handgun, and soon he’s set out into the real world.  Both stories are about cops who get involved with the villain, in some ways flirting with them.  In Blue Steel there was an actual romance between Jamie Lee Curtis’ Megan Turner and the villain, Ron Silver’s Eugene Hunt.  Here, Utah falls under the charms of local surfer Bodhi (Swayze), who has a cult-like following of other surfers, not unlike Charles Manson.

In each case, this storytelling device of presenting the villain clearly and early, makes the mystery not who the bad guy is, but, I suppose, what drives him.  In Blue Steel it was a sexual obsession with the power of a gun.  Here it’s adrenaline.  The bad guy, though Bodhi is arguably less bad than Eugene, is driven by a testosterone-fueled high.  Each one is likely a commentary on men and what makes men tick.  Utah’s love interest, Tyler (Lori Petty), rolls her eyes at the male ego and adrenaline junkies that are Bodhi’s crew.  And the depictions of his fellow surfers, including other tribes of surfers, present them as nothing more than “young, dumb and full of cum.”

So this gray area, the relationship between our cop hero and the bad guy doesn’t seem so much an attempt to understand the villain as much as show how dangerous they can be, I think.  Sure, Utah does develop a friendship with Bodhi, but he’s never really smitten with him.  Utah never once considers switching sides because that would be ridiculous.  Even as he’s charmed by Bodhi, the best he can do is not shoot him when he has the chance.

I guess this overlap, this relationship between good and bad is just meant to show the allure of… evil?  There’s that part of all of us that wants to turn to the other side?  I don’t really know.  It’s like a drug.  Megan Turner and Johnny Utah each find a sense of salvation in their respective bad guys, and eventually that turns really bad.  So it’s never about them trying to find out who the bad guy is, because they, and we, already know very early on.

Johnny Utah’s character arc seems to have more value when considered in relation to Blue Steel.  Johnny himself has very few strong characteristics.  He’s just a guy, an action hero we’ve seen before and will see again.  So the impact of Johnny’s character only comes from considering what we know and expect about him from other action movies.  He might as well be every Tom Cruise character or any other “People‘s Magazine Hottest Man of the Year.”  What you need to know about Johnny Utah you already know from watching other movies.

The best parts of Point Break are the action scenes.  They’re well-shot, well-directed and likely make you feel the adrenaline you’re supposed to feel were you to see it in a theater.  My television set didn’t quite do the trick, but the action is still engaging nonetheless.  There are many scenes of surfers doing their thing which quickly wear off, particularly with the excessive use of slow motion and the long lens, often meant to obscure the relative innocence of a wave in comparison to how big it’s supposed to seem.  All I could think about was how difficult it must have been to shoot these scenes.  I mean, resetting between shots, waiting for the next wave, must have taken forever.

There’s an exciting foot chase in which Bigelow made use of a lighter camera using steadicam-like technology that is much more prevalent today.  Then, of course, there are the two skydiving scenes that are quite impressive and work better as an experience than as narrative scenes.

Point Break is a spectacle, with some humor peppered in the middle.  It’s all a bit silly, but it’s meant to be.  Each line of dialogue serves a specific purpose, whether that’s to move the plot forward or just to make a quick joke that establishes each character’s relation.  We’re only in a given setting as long we need to be, giving the film a kind of breathless feel.  It moves very quickly, and there’s little room for any… I don’t know, atmosphere?  It’s not about nuance or the characters.  They’re characteristics simply fit a mold, a role.

This is a plot-driven movie with replaceable characters, but they’re made memorable by a knowing nod of the head to past action movies.  Maybe there’s an attempt to subvert the antagonist by casting Patrick Swayze (Dirty DancingGhost), and making Bodhi someone you want to be around.  He’s meant to lure you in, and perhaps he does, but we know he’s not in the story unless he’s the ultimate villain.

And maybe there was a similarly inspired choice to cast Keanu Reeves.  His action hero days started, possibly, with this film.  Speed came out in 1994, then The Matrix in 1999.  Before Point Break, he seems to have been mostly known as Ted from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a comedy.

This casting suggests Bigelow’s own awareness of the absurd movie she’s making.  The hero is a comedic actor, and the villain is a traditional Hollywood leading man.  Though Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West did a similar thing in casting Henry Fonda, typically a ‘good guy,’ as the villain.

What little evidence I’ve pointed out suggests to me that Bigelow knows very well what kind of movie she’s making.  A teacher once told me that the reason Roger Ebert sometimes gave good reviews to bad movies, depending on how you saw it, was because he was comparing the movie to what it set out to do.  That means you’re not comparing Superbad with Schindler’s List.  And that means that when you watch Point Break, you compare it so similar movies.  I think Bigelow had all of these movies in mind while she made it.  She had a message, something to say about those typse of characters who push the limit, something made romantic and possible in movies but probably much less so in real life.  Or maybe that wasn’t the point at all.  Johnny Utah is one of those guys, but he doesn’t seem to grow up by the end of the movie.  He’s still the same guy, and maybe that’s the point.

But Kathryn Bigelow knows the broad plot points of a movie like this.  She knows the puzzle and how to solve it.  There are plenty of nice set ups and call backs, whether it’s when we establish Utah’s perfect aim followed by his choice not to shoot Bodi, with Pappas noting that he would never miss.  There’s also Bodhi’s belief in the storm of the century which we return to in the film’s epilogue.  There are many other moments too, and while each on they’re own are relatively insignificant, just minor callbacks, they add up to a cathartic journey of sorts.  Point Break gives us what we want, in a lot of ways.  It’s not challenging, but it’s not meant to be.  It’s just one of those movies you might leave on for a bit longer were you to stumble on it on tv.  And some movies fade away.  This one clearly hasn’t.

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