In the opening scenes of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break” (1991), a rapturous day of surf is intercut with a gun range training session for FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves).
Both the surfers and Utah are immersed in water – Utah is hitting all his targets during a downpour, while the surfers are majorly hanging ten in slow motion. From the very start, Bigelow isn’t kidding around. The visuals are rich and beautiful, suggesting a synergy of this male-dominated view.
Yet, Bigelow is not submitting to testosterone on hand (not fully, at least) Her approach brings balance to the elevated macho tone and the unceasing earnestness of the story.
Utah goes up against a crew of skydiving bank robbing surfers, who go by The Ex-Presidents and dress up in Halloween masks of former U.S. leaders as they empty bank tills. This is the stuff of comedies and could have easily been a subplot of “Hot Shots!,” which arrived the same summer.
Utah’s wily partner, Pappas, played by a gloriously unleashed Gary Busey, tells Utah he’s convinced the suspects are surfers, because one of them sports a tan line in the surveillance video.
Utah falls for Tyler Ann Endicott (Lori Petty), the casual squeeze of surfer extraordinaire Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). As an indoctrinated member of Bodhi’s gang, Utah is outed as a former football star, which is true, but he also poses as a lawyer. There are intentional comedies that are nowhere near this funny.
It’s like a ’60s biker drama, combined with a Frankie and Annette beach movie, with Sam Peckinpaugh action and masculine restlessness.
You could take the screenplay by W. Peter Iliff (who also wrote “Varsity Blues” and, I kid you not, “Prayer of the Rollerboys”) as is and make it a comedy. While the howlingly funny dialog is intact, Bigelow’s reluctance to make this a joke was a bold risk. Here is the world’s only thriller about football star turned FBI agent who goes undercover as a football star turned lawyer, to stop a gang of gun toting surfers and it, somehow, manages to be hilarious, surprising and riveting.
FAST FACT: Keanu Reeves says making “Point Break” changed his life, adding it had a similar impact on viewers. “I started jumping out of airplanes cause of Point Break. I started surfing because of Point Break.’ You know, it really changed people’s lives, just like it did mine.”
Bodhi’s approach to life (“if you want the ultimate, you’ve got to pay the ultimate price”) isn’t just dude-speak but a fear-free, impulsive state of being. The youthful energy of the whole thing is intoxicating, though Bigelow isn’t favoring Bodhi’s seductive proselytizing.
The “Hurt Locker” director knows these characters are spouting macho nonsense, but we get it: these high-on-life villains are like Robin Hood, minus the nobility, as they rob banks to fund their next adventure and live life to the fullest.
Who wouldn’t envy this existence, in which every day you surf, sky dive and end things with beachside bonfires, tackle football and sex on the sand, cushioned with the euphoric belief that you’re living the best version of yourself?
As a cautionary tale about succumbing to the basest male urges and proving yourself a man by simply surviving each day, Bigelow is demonstrating why those who live “extreme” lives are even bigger knuckleheads than Johnny Utah.
Bodhi is part Zen master, part Charles Manson. Unless you’re already on the film’s wavelength, you likely won’t be sucked in by Bodhi’s id-driven need to risk all to gain a jolt of adrenaline. However, Swayze’s performance, both soulful, restrained and intense, is terrific – it’s easy to see why anyone would fall for his line, let alone his exotic day to day adventures.
Bodhi isn’t just the evil leader but also the father figure, big brother and dominant male center of his team – note how paternal he gets in the final scenes, as his colleagues are wounded but he foolishly assures them survival. The sense of protagonist and antagonist gets flipped, as Utah’s righteousness but square limitations lack Bodhi’s New Age sense of morals, as skewed as they are.
Swayze’s approach to Bodhi is in line with Bigelow’s vision for the entire film – the actor, whose recent “Ghost” turbo charged his career, is so magnetic and committed to the role, I never doubted the character, even as his behavior is certifiable.
Reeves is very funny in this, though it probably wasn’t always on purpose. He’s playing an elevated version of the goofy persona he created in the “Bill and Ted” movies and “Parenthood.” This is Reeves’ first action movie (“Speed” would come three years later) and he’s incredibly appealing here, even as his acting ranges from competent to guilty pleasure mode.
Petty isn’t an obvious casting choice for her role, which is why she works so well in the film’s lone emphasized female role (the late Galyn Gorg has no lines as Bodhi’s new girlfriend). Rather than play the damsel in distress, Petty’s Tyler acknowledges that both sides of the equation (Bodhi’s McConaughey-esque JKL mentality and Utah’s deception and naivete) are wrongheaded and she acts as the audience surrogate.
The exquisite cinematography by Donald Peterman is a major asset, as is the artistry of Howard Smith, who edits this with precision. The imagery is sleek, gorgeous, even poetic at times (note the way Tyler and Utah “meet,” as she saves him while he’s twisting under a wave and about to drown).
It’s impossible to pinpoint the film’s greatest action sequence, though the mother of all foot chases and the initial skydiving sequence are still astonishing. Only the climactic gun fight on an airport tarmac feels clumsily staged and is the one scene that doesn’t truly work. Otherwise, this is a milestone American action movie.
POINT BREAK (1991)
— One Perfect Shot (@OnePerfectShot) July 3, 2021
A clear visualization of how far this goes to keep us thrilled out of our minds: when Swayze leans out the side of a plane, says “Adios, amigos” with a smile and falls into the air, the shot isn’t fake. Because the actors are, for the most part, really doing the things we’re seeing them do (sky dive, surf, football and run really fast), we get a hit of the excitement that Bodhi is talking about.
The big scenes are cleanly staged and constructed, devoid of CGI, shaky cam or noisy music (Mark Isham’s great score is another big plus). They don’t make movies like this anymore, though few filmmakers make action films as good as Bigelow.
It’s absurd that it took “The Hurt Locker” for the zeitgeist to fully recognize that she’s one of our greatest action movie directors, period.
Between the midpoint raid/gunfight in “Point Break” (complete with a lawnmower used as a weapon), the opening of “Strange Days” (her 1995 masterpiece) and the night raid on Bin Laden’s compound in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), Bigelow is a master at this. Her action movies are more shockingly violent, mythic and thrilling than nearly every other American filmmaker.
While the movie keeps a straight face during its most they-had-to-have-been-kidding moments, there is still a playfulness to this. Swayze’s “a’llo a’llo a’llo” during the initial bank robbery suggests a nod to Alex and his Droogs of “A Clockwork Orange.” There’s also the impossible to miss reference Reeves makes to “Patrick’s Roadhouse,” an amusing nod to his co-star.
Of course, they tried to remake this and, naturally, it didn’t work.
Bigelow’s film, as outlandish as it gets, is lightening in a bottle and a true original. The 2015 “Point Break,” with its “extreme sports” angle, resulted in beautiful action footage but numbingly bad screenwriting, indifferent performances and a joyless tone.
Actually, the real remake to “Point Break” stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker: never forget, the plot to Bigelow’s film was stolen outright for “The Fast and the Furious” (2001).
The other noteworthy “Point Break” spinoff is not a TV adaptation (thank goodness) but a clever comedy show that played in Los Angeles called “Point Break Live!” It was a stage performance of the film but with a clever gimmick – someone in the audience would be chosen beforehand to play Utah; the “actor” who would be picked for the role had to read his lines off of cue cards, which made each scripted sentence sound uncannily like Reeve’s charismatically detached line readings.
It was a brilliantly funny idea, which ran from 2007-2016 and my brother Marty was among the lucky patrons who was cast as Utah; he was selected because he and three other audience members, who bore a resemblance to Reeves, had to read the line, “I’m Johnny Utah,” which my brother posed as a question. I still have that performance on videocassette.
Bigelow has taken a bone-headed concept (you can imagine it in lesser hands, starring Brendan Fraser and Pauly Shore as Bodhi and Utah), given it her painterly approach to film artistry and made one of the ultimate summer movies.
With its crisp filming and passionate direction, you feel the spray of the surf as much as the blows from the fist fights. Bigelow’s film manages to be as funny as its premise suggests but, by shaping this as not merely just captivating but downright mythic in its presentation, she’s made a film that resonates.
“Point Break” is sometimes intentionally hilarious, sometimes not but Bigelow’s talent, and what she accomplished here, is no laughing matter.