In a nutshell: Ex semi pro footballer turned FBI recruit Johnny Utah is assigned on his first mission to learn to surf so he can infiltrate a group of bank robbers who call themselves the ex presidents.
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When you try and describe the plot to Point Break, (with a straight face) it sounds like an amazing cheese dream – FBI agents, surfers, sky diving bank robberies and err, ooh some Buddhism too! Apologies, I haven’t even got to the ridiculous character names, Johnny Utah, Angelo Pappas, Bohdi, Tyler, Warchild…seriously! It’s almost too silly, but yet, somehow it works. The defining reason is likely to be is that it’s all whipped into shape by the most highly awarded female director working today* – Kathryn Bigelow.
It’s hard to believe the director responsible for two of the greatest War-on-Terror thrillers of recent times, The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is also responsible for this silly genre film starring the bloke from Bill and Ted’s…., and that dreamy guy from Dirty Dancing – but everyone has to start somewhere. On closer inspection, you can see the threads – the tightly edited, tense action from her more recent films have their foundations in some of the key set pieces on display in Point Break- the raid on Warchild’s house, the car to foot chase and that tense, ill-fated bank job.
As crazy as the plot was, it was enough to get noticed in Hollywood, Ridley Scott was initially attached before it fell into the hands of James Cameron, who was looking for a new project for his then wife, Bigelow (it seems Cameron has as many ex-wives as he has Avatar sequels in the pipeline). Bigelow herself having just come off the back of Blue Steel (1990); a Jamie Lee Curtis cop thriller and hidden gem Near Dark (1987), a neo-Western involving vampires.
Bigelow treats the ludicrous set up – apparently dreamt up by producer Rick King as he read an article about the rise of bank robberies in LA whilst sat on the beach – with enough energy and slick cinematography to keep you thrilled that you don’t have the chance to question it.The film’s longevity is also due to the fact it taps into the emerging trends of grunge, surfing/extreme sports that would go on to help define the 90’s – and don’t forget this was only at the beginning of the decade – summer of 1991.
The film also captures a feel for California without having to resort to the kind of stock footage that you’d find in a Beverly Hills Cop montage – instead, we get something more domestic and ground level – beaches, back streets and storm drains. Bigelow (along with her Director of Photography, Donald Peterman) displays a real eye for the city, something that would be better defined in her next film, the lesser seen Strange Days (1995), an excellent sci-fi thriller which shows a near future LA on the eve of the Millennium in decay and on the brink of race riots….scarily precient, considering recent events across the US.
Unlike most action films, there’s plenty of eye candy on display for the ladies, and female eye is definitely evident here, which potentially adds to the homoeroticsm – from the get-go, the camera lingers on Reeves in a wet t-shirt and being a movie about surfers, there’s plenty of studly and buff men on display. I was introduced to this film by a girl – it was a movie that both sexes could say is cool – admittedly something of a rarity in the canon of films in the Retro Ramble vault.
A lot of the film’s appeal is the casting of the main stars Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves and their growing romance friendship. Swayze brings a balance of charm and gravitas that his role requires and makes his surfing-philosophy “feel it’s energy, tap into it” digestible. There’s a twinkle in those blue eyes that makes him a compelling anti-hero and reminds you that he’s a talent we all miss. It’s not just Johnny who get’s seduced by Bodhi – the audience does too.
Onto Mr Marmite, himself, Keanu Reeves. I’d argue he’s the reason this film endures to be a cult classic and or guilty pleasure. Love him or hate him, Reeves approaches the majority of his roles with enthusiasm, while many will joke about his wooden mannerisms, in real life he comes across as a very funny and animated person. Indeed, his CV prior to this shows a background in comedy, admittedly broad strokes with a bunch of stoner/ juvenile delinquents, but one can argue there’s talent in comic timing.
As the film begins, Utah is a machine, 100% efficient at the gun range, a yes-man man who “takes the skin off his chicken” and is dubious of his surfing assignment. As he learns to master the waves and falls under Bohdi’s spell, you get to see him soften around others. He’s still that driven agent that is determined to get his guy, but he’s also more human. Obviously, there’s a limit to his acting range, if you want slow burning undercover cop drama, go watch The Departed (2006) or Donnie Brasco (1997)!
Today, we take Keanu’s ass kicking for granted, it’s hard to remember that this was his first action role. Without Point Break- there would be no Speed (1994), no Matrix Trilogy (1999 – 2003) and no John Wick (2014) – it’s that simple.
Reeves revealed in recent interview that Bigelow fought for him to be cast, and to her credit, she has a canny knack for casting. From discovering new talent like Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker or Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty or surrounding your stars with great character actors in supporting roles. Gary Busey, John C McGinley and Tom Sizemore all give the film grounding, they’re all happy to chip away at Utah’s quarterback background, ensuring the film doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Outside of the action scenes, there’s some fantastic cinematography for both surfing and skydiving sequences, scored with an atmospheric score from Marc Isham that delivers an almost dreamlike and majestic feeling. Admittedly the first skydiving scene almost outstays it’s welcome but I’m sure it inspired many people (myself included) to try it out. The 90’s would go on to feature two more action thrillers featuring sky-diving – 1994 gave us both Drop Zone (with Busey on bad guy duties) and Terminal Velocity, like Point Break, they have ludicrous plots, yet no one talks about either in the same way (probably because they’re both terrible).
I also have to point out that the original The Fast And The Furious (2001) is a carbon copy of Point Break’s plot, only the extreme sports is replaced with street racing. Shockingly, no credit was given the makers of Point Break – you imagine that they could be annoyed considering without it, we may not have eight (and counting) Fast & Furious installments, films that are out-grossing Star Wars on their opening weekend!
However, as I say Bigelow has moved on to weightier, more credible projects, including upcoming race-riot drama, Detroit (2017). I for one would love to see what she could do with a franchise, especially a Bond or Batman film, however, that would likely be a waste of her talents.
To summarise, Point Break is a great piece of 90s action cinema that still stands the test of time. There’s many factors that make it such an enjoyable watch – be it a guilty pleasure or action treat – the chemistry between Reeves and Swayze, the one-liners and some thrilling action sequences. It’s an action film that’s not afraid to break some rules, it’s homo-erotic, it’s a bit silly but “Why be a servant to the law, when you can be its master?”
MVP: Kathryn Bigelow, who makes the ludicrous plot work whilst inspiring a generation to try surfing and skydiving.
Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Originally, Matthew Broderick, Johnny Depp, Val Kilmer and Charlie Sheen were all considered to play Johnny Utah. Most crazy is the fact that Willem Defoe was also considered for Utah. Wait, what?!
Fun Fact: Whilst Patrick Swayze’s surfing stunt double is rather obvious, he performed most of the skydiving stunts himself, completing hundreds of jumps in the process, what a legend! We miss you Swayze!
*With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow became the first, and only woman (to date), to win the Academy Award for Best Director, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, and the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Director. She also became the first woman to win the Saturn Award for Best Director in 1995 for Strange Days.