POINT BREAK (1991)

  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Writers: Screenplay by W. Peter Iliff, story by Rick King and W. Peter Iliff
  • Starring: Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey, Lori Petty, John C. McGinley, James LeGros, John Philbin, Bojesse Christopher, and Lee Tergesen
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#14)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

In the middle of Point Break, there is an extended chase on foot involving Keanu Reeves chasing Patrick Swayze while the latter wears a Ronald Reagan mask. You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that I think this sequence is an absolute masterpiece. Director Kathryn Bigelow uses a handheld camera to give a sense of immediacy and excitement without ever losing track of what’s happening, directly following her characters across streets, through backyards and alleys, and even through several houses of a seaside neighborhood in the LA area. This is a successful version of what Paul Greengrass’ much lauded direction in the Bourne movies is (mostly unsuccessfully, in my opinion) imitating. What makes this sequence really memorable, though, is the way it keeps escalating from an action perspective, until Reeves emerges from another innocent bystander’s front door to find Swayze there (still in the Reagan mask), holding a full-size pitbull in his arms. Swayze throws the barking dog at Reeves, to my great glee and satisfaction, but even this is not enough for him to escape. The sequence ends with Reeves aggravating his old football injury (a plot point this movie keeps coming back to over and over) and aiming his gun at the fleeing Swayze while splayed on the ground.  The camera zooms in close on Swayze’s eyes underneath the mask. At the last moment, Reeves empties his gun into the air, screaming in manly frustration. He and Swayze are friends, you see, and he just can’t bring himself to shoot him.

Kathryn Bigelow will probably always be known, long after many of her movies have been completely forgotten, as the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, a feat she accomplished with 2008’s Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker. For several years she seemed to be the only woman a big studio was willing to hand a major budget to in order to make an action movie. In interviews she always rebelled against being known as a “female director” or “feminist director,” wanting just to be thought of as “a director.” Point Break turned out to be one of two movies Bigelow made during her marriage to director James Cameron, who served as producer on this movie. Whether she was on the outs with the Hollywood in-crowd or not, Bigelow went on to direct only three movies between Point Break in 1991 and The Hurt Locker in 2008, none of which was a major hit (1995’s Strange Days has gained in popularity more recently).

The story of Point Break sounds completely ridiculous when you just describe it, which, of course, it is, but it’s important to note that, while there are jokes in the movie, it takes its basic story and premise 100% seriously. Reeves plays a former Ohio State quarterback who was kept from the NFL by that untimely knee injury and has instead pursued a career in the FBI. His character is saddled with the highly amusing name of “Johnny Utah,” which Reeves apparently suggested as a good name for a quarterback, “a mix of Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana.” He and his veteran partner (Gary Busey) are assigned to investigate a gang of bank robbers known as the “Ex-Presidents” (because they all wear masks of different Presidents during robberies). Busey’s character has a bizarre, convoluted theory that the bank robbers are a bunch of surfers. He convinces Johnny Utah that he has to go undercover as a surfer to try and ferret out the bank robbers. He of course falls for the girl surfer he gets to give him lessons (Lori Petty), and becomes friends with the new agey surfing guru, Bodhi (Swayze). Part way through the movie Utah figures out that Bodhi and his friends are actually the Ex-Presidents, but at that point there’s a solid hour left in the movie.

This plot summary does not do justice to the actual action bits of the movie, like the mexican stand-off that takes place while sky-diving. More importantly, perhaps, it’s very clear that Reeves, Swayze, and the other actors all actually did these things. That doesn’t just include the skydiving but also the surfing. All of the actors seen surfing had to actually learn to surf, receiving instruction from actor John Philbin (who plays one of the members of the Ex-Presidents in the movie). Philbin had been a member of the UC-Santa Barbara “surfing team,” which I did not know was a thing. If you are someone who is impressed by and enjoys watching surfing, this movie likely has several sequences you will enjoy. If not, it’s not that huge a part of the movie. Point Break can definitely be enjoyed as a straight-up action movie that happens to have a couple of surfing scenes.

Look, Point Break is not high art, but it feels far more like an authored piece than most of the other action movies from the same era that I’ve seen over the years. In addition to the fact that Bigelow seems to have actually put thought into what techniques and shots to use, she’s playing around a little bit with the roles here. Lori Petty could have been an extremely generic love interest, but she hardly comes off as the junior partner in her relationship with Johnny Utah. Not to mention the fact that her character has short, spiky hair and is named “Tyler.” Reeves, meanwhile, is basically playing his character from Bill & Ted, but the good news is that he at least seems to have different levels of that character: i.e., a toned-down version that can semi-believably be an FBI agent and another, full-blown version that he uses when undercover as a surfer dude.

And the basic idea of the central love-hate relationship between the hero and the villain is, if not a home run, at least an interesting swing. In the movie’s last scene, Reeves finally catches up to Patrick Swayze’s surfer slash bank robber on an Australian beach in the middle of a Typhoon, where Bodhi is planning to catch “the biggest waves in the history of the world.” Utah has him handcuffed, but Bodhi convinces him that he “can’t live in a cage” and Utah releases him to go out and surf the wave. A just-arriving Australian cop notes that they will arrest Bodhi when he comes back in. “He’s not coming back in,” Reeves intones, not looking back as he walks away. We watch Swayze fall from his board and the credits roll to a track by Ratt. Is this very ridiculous? Yes. Is the movie very serious about this? Yes. Does Keanu have jurisdiction in Australia? Who knows. 

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