The opening of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 surfer heist thriller Point Break sums up the film brilliantly. We cross cut from the two opposing sides of the law to an environment where they feel like they can channel inner peace.
Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is shooting at target practices during a torrential downpour, with seemingly no hesitation for what his obstacles may be – he just wants to do the right thing with the task his given. Then over to Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), who treats the ocean like some godly presence who he is privileged to even share time with, photographed with a majestic vision that captures the way only Bodhi and his crew see the summer waves.
The Romance of Adrenaline
Bigelow never sees any apparent differences between the two men, and instead uses water and success to show how similar two sides of the law are. They’re both chasing a thrill, a high to keep their lives exciting by whatever means, to up the adrenaline seeking. Utah chases this by serving the FBI and being celebrated for another criminal caught, while Bodhi seems to hardly acknowledge the moral consequences that bank robberies may possess. To him, it is just the next logical step away from surfing and skydiving that he finds that rush of energy.
A year prior to Point Break, Bigelow had directed Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel, following a rookie cop who is stalked and taunted by a witness to a botched robbery. The film never did as well financially as Point Break, but we can see Bigelow is interested in similar ideas, like the cat and mouse chase that feels like these two are meant to be each other’s foils. The idea that she looks at two people whose approaches are totally different styles, this leads Bigelow to question how and why people have fixations towards each other in the first place. To some extent, this is similar to the best picture/director winning The Hurt Locker. We follow a group of men in Iraq, but it is Jeremy Renner’s Will James who really begins to develop an addiction to feeling alive during his time stationed in the sandy ruins whilst disarming bombs. Similar to Bodhi, they wouldn’t know how to continue with their lives if they didn’t feel some kind of rush somehow.
One of the many achievements that comes from Point Break is just how brilliant casting Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah really was. Typically taken for granted, Reeves contains such an idiosyncratic quality about him, it makes his essence difficult to define when it seems easy. Before John Wick, Matrix or Speed, Reeves was primarily known for the “frat guy”, meathead persona that was tagged onto him in 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure; a kind of guy who may not be the brightest or the best at what he does, yet is well-meaning in his motivations.
The previous generation would never have had a type like Keanu as a leading man, given his body structure you can find in a Schwarzenegger or a certain macho attitude like Bruce Willis. His performing never grants you much investigating, he puts all emotion on the surface without much understatement. Utah is the antithesis of a rookie, “young, dumb and full of cum” as startlingly put down by stern FBI supervisor Ben Harp (John C. McGinley), who is in over his head and begins to be seduced by Bodhi’s high octane lifestyle.
Bodhi is also expertly modelled by Patrick Swayze, who breathes likeability in an otherwise unlikable person. He’s kind of crazy and Swayze makes that easy to forget if it were anyone else cast as Bodhi, taking into account this was his follow up to Dirty Dancing, Road House and Ghost. This succession announced that Swayze is now someone who’s set to be bankable, and more importantly, charismatic. This run of hits granted him access to work with anyone he likes, now that he had been proven to headline. Bigelow not only casting him, but in the role of the villain, proved to be an incredibly clever decision given his type as the charming hero or romantic lead; in a turn of events, he uses his looks not to swoon a romantic lead but to captivate the audience that he is saner than he says he is. Bodhi is someone that just can’t be tamed until Utah shows up, even when Pappas (Gary Busey) connects the dots between the surfing community and the summertime bank heists, which then allows Utah to act as the mole. Bigelow has them coexist with one another so Bodhi can continue with upping his own game and Utah trying to stop him in the process, because this is all a game to Bodhi.
It has always been pretty odd that in order to have a legitimate appreciation for Point Break, it is had with a sense of irony like you’re in on a joke that the movie itself isn’t even in on. Bigelow takes everything seriously while balancing with the silly cat and mouse dynamic of Bodhi and Utah. From the skydiving, to the heists, to the football on the beach, it is all done with a sense of humor from screenwriter W. Peter Iliff married with Bigelow’s masculine, hard-edged tactility and commentary are sensibilities that shouldn’t mesh but go very well together.
While Iliff’s take is to make another FBI thriller with a twist, Bigelow is interested in exploring much more and frankly finds the central dynamic kind of silly. Not to say she doesn’t care, but the amount of time and energy Utah tries and keeps failing to bring down Bodhi is so hyperbolic that the movie can’t help but maintain the idea of almost achieving what you set out for. At the same time, the way Bodhi speaks about the adrenaline in his life, wave like no other and religion is so out of place that Bigelow finds it to be absurdly to thought out, even having the main female character Tyler (Lori Petty) to comment that it is “just guys being guys” in regard to how intense Bodhi can get with his lifestyle.
I consider Kathryn Bigelow to be possibly our finest action-oriented filmmaker we have right now. From the thrilling, well-choreographed heists we see here, to the gritty, documentary-like set piece of recent work like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and Detroit, there is nobody else that can produce and reproduce a feeling of anxious tension during the action better than her. She has come a long way with the way she directs her action too, the camera maintains a sense of stability through the scene with a chaotic-like procedure. She has come from a sensual approach to more of a visceral one and neither has done her any wrong, the experimentation has always been welcome.
Particularly in the heists, there is a lot going on but the geography is never lost. It also helps that the ex-presidents never go to the vault so Bigelow never spends too much time with the action anyway. In the modern phase of her career, she has really perfected the way in which to use shaky-cam techniques for meticulousness, not just flash. We can see the contrast during the drug house raid where the scene is shot pretty standard, but gets the point across with the efficiency on display here. It has weight to it, like it’s revving up for something that can’t be overstated, Bigelow loves the set up for a kick-ass action scene just as much as she loves the payoff.
Twenty-eight years on, Point Break continues to be a staple of expertly-made action filmmaking that is just as fun as it is discreetly romantic. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker or two main leads, it could have the potential to just be another thriller with a neat nugget of an idea in 1991 that just got eclipsed by Terminator 2. And as many comparisons may come to Fast and Furious, the skeleton of the former may be reproduced but the feeling of the latter can’t be matched.