Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break” (1991)

By Maor Goihberg

Somehow, I have to unfortunately admit, I have never seen any of the John Wick movies. Despite quite a few plane flights boasting a content library that includes his tales of blood and tears, I have never made the push to enjoy the franchise and I am still wondering what I am missing out on. Nevertheless, I am no stranger to the attraction of Keanu Reeves, having watched the first two Matrix movies, as well as Speed (and Parenthood). He has a kind of charisma, somehow edgy and easygoing at the same time, that keeps us hooked, even amidst bewildering exposition of existential questions. 

His charm was very much on display in Point Break, which I saw at the Coolidge’s annual screening on Presidents’ Day. A classic action-flick in the tradition of Robocop and The Rock (in the sense that it doesn’t force you to think too hard, but still keeps your brain functioning with a healthy dose of oxygen), it has almost completely sublimated itself into the cultural consciousness: most of us don’t think about it every day, but when we see it, we know it. 

Point Break sweeps us back to the 1990’s, where a group of thieves, whose only signature is the presidents’ masks they don, have carried out several bank robberies: they go in and out in record time, and disappear before the police can even respond. Cue Johnny Utah, a former college football star turned FBI agent, fresh out of basic training and sent to the LA office. He’s partnered with Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), an old-timer and a bit of an oddball amongst the yuppies. 

See, Angelo has a theory: the robbers are surfers (how he came up with that is something I can’t spoil). He’s given up on pursuing it after a great deal of mockery, but Johnny can’t see why they have to rule it out. And so he ventures into the sepia-toned world of SoCal beaches, determined to make himself a part of the surfing community until he can identify the culprits. 

Of course, he actually needs to learn how to surf, bringing him to Tyler (Lori Petty), who works at one of those nice little beachfront cafes. After saving him during an… unsuccessful attempt to learn by doing, she agrees to become his tutor after he concocts a story (using less than ethical means) that draws her empathy. 

Incidentally, Tyler has an ex, Body (Patrick Swayze), the leader of a cool band that seems to live for the waves. It doesn’t take long for Utah and Body to become the best of friends, while false leads and dead ends continue to rattle his brain. Then, with the most delicious of clues, Johnny realizes that it is Body who was the criminal mastermind.

Point Break was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, whose studio career was on the rise after helming another thriller, Blue Steel with Jamie Lee Curtis. She shows off an endless array of virtuoso chops, from the sleek camera movements during the robberies, to terrific long takes during a foot chase, to a heart-stopping gunfight that serves a model of suspense. 

Of course, this film isn’t just about criminals, but criminal athletes. The surfing scenes are well-done, especially the long-shots, but it’s the skydiving scenes that will wow you. These scenes are never just about forcing a little more testosterone or octane, but about articulating the themes. 

This leads me to one of the flaws in the film, which has bugged me since it ended. Swayze gives a terrific performance, somehow Zen and intense all at once, optimistic in his worldview while also clear-eyed in his deeds. However, the script does not really attempt to truly grapple with his internal contradictions, and this constricts some key scenes where his pathos comes off too silly. 

Yes, this is a silly film. Reeves has already mastered a kind of screen persona that allowed him to capitalize on his naive boyish looks without dumbing down for the audience, a great contrast with Busey’s half-cocked agent. The great John C. McGinley chews more than a little scenery as the Chief, a great setup for his terrific turn on Scrubs. On the other hand, Petty takes her role just seriously enough, giving the romance a center of gravity without dragging down the film. 

Ultimately, I did not completely fall in love with the film. I believe that a little more work could’ve been done to understand what pushed such a warm guy to become a killer. But the scenes between the two leads are magic, and with every adrenaline kick along the way, we never lose sight of the heart that gets broken.

2 Responses

  1. Chris Knipp at |

    It’s Bodhi, not ” Body.” Short for Bodhisatva.

  2. Chris Knipp at |

    I like your central point and your concluding words. However I’m not sure the script can come to terms with Bodhi’s internal contraditions any more than he can. Maybe surfer bank robbers or more a cool construct than a possible reality anyway.


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