With Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, DETROIT, opening wide recently, I am revisiting this project that I sadly left unfinished several years earlier. This installment is being published for the first time.
The Film: Point Break
The Year: 1991
The Plot: In California the Ex-Presidents are a successful bank hold-up crew who appear at the start of summer, dressed in suits and rubber masks of some former leaders of the free world, only to disappear a few months later and then return at the start of the next summer. Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) has a theory on them being part of the surfing sub-population but no one will take him seriously on it. That is until his new partner, rookie agent and former college football star Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) arrives.
Utah goes undercover in the scene meeting, among others, Tyler (Lori Petty) his surfing tutor, and Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) Tyler’s former boyfriend and adrenaline philosopher. As Utah becomes more involved in the culture, his judgment becomes increasingly muddied.
The Issues: The Norms vs. The Truly Free- Like so many movies that focus on a subculture, a lot of the implicit and explicit content concerns how being a part of the culture is inherently superior to buying into societal expectations.
To the movie’s credit, it complicates matters a bit by making the subculture entirely intertwined with criminal behavior and making our protagonist so clearly someone who had only done what he was told or what was expected of him for his entire life. As a result, both options seem unattractive and deeply flawed.
The Nature of Control vs. Chaos- Essentially an echo of the above theme but just a touch difference as it is less about choosing your “tribe” and more about a life philosophy. Does embracing your passion have to mean living a life where there are no rules? Does being a part of society mean sacrificing your individuality to a grinding set of rules? Do either really give you safety? Do either really guarantee you happiness?
Once again, the movie settles on neither extreme, exposing one side as inherently selfish despite its oft-proclaimed live and let live philosophy and the other as too inflexible to provide morals in situations that at all involve shades of grey.
Old School Instincts Being Pushed Out by New School Forensics- The new ways, as represented by terminally unimpressed John C. McGinley’s supervisor, are all number crunching and lab work while Busey represents the classic follow your guts approach. This is theme seems surprisingly prescient although we see this push/pull a lot more in the world of sports these days.
What is the Nature of Manhood?- I do wonder if this theme was as stark in the past as it is today, but I do think it was baked in even back in 1991. Despite the extremes represented by the forces in Utah’s life—the Ex-Presidents v. the FBI, Bodhi v. Pappas—they often suggest the same thing about being man. For instance, both present hierarchical structures where there are clear—and I’m so sorry to use these tired terms—alphas and betas. To achieve true manhood is to be assertive and, often, to treat the people around you as objects more than fellow human beings.
The Opinion: POINT BREAK does not need to be a beautiful movie, but it is. Between the way Bigelow lets the camera linger long and unblinking on shots of beautiful beaches and human beings gloriously harnessing the ocean under their surfboards and the jittery quick cuts of the Exes criminal activities and subsequent chases, the film captures the beauty and the danger of the surfers cum criminals’ lives. Additionally, it nicely reflects the conflict inherent in being dedicated to only dancing to your own personal drumbeat: incredible beauty and delights balanced against pain and violence.
Before addressing the two leads, I want to make sure to single out two supporting players. One is Lori Petty. Despite her role as the “gift” Bodhi gives Utah and all the gross misogyny that implies, she is just excellent. I was thrilled when she showed up on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK a few years ago and performances like this on the reason.
Busey, on the other hand, is a cartoon, all googly eyed energy and unpredictability. I don’t know if you can call it good, but it is a delight.
Much has been made of Reeves’ acting ability as of late, but the Reeves praised in those pieces is not really the one encountered here. This is the still, shall we say, stretching Reeves. The way he makes a meal of the line, “I am an F B I agent,” is the scene that launched a thousand imitations (and a great contrast to the recent similar line from TWIN PEAKS). Nonetheless, he does a nice job of showing s the lost puppy that is Agent Utah. He is a man whose first love and pursuit—football—was taken from him and who is trying to pour that dedication into a life in law enforcement but has not yet found that same fulfillment. Without it, he is susceptible to Bodhi’s sociopathic charisma. Utah, of course, knows that the Exes is a dumb route to take but he is so hungry for a place where he feels he belongs, he wants so desperately to ignore the warnings. Regardless of his line reads, you can see that in Reeves’ face and flickering through his eyes.
If Reeves is all conflicted emptiness, Swayze is a smooth easy delight. I tend to think of him as more charisma than acting and that may or may not be unfair of me. Judging by his Bodhi here he deserves another shake from me. He does deploy his considerable charms but he lets them hang on the screen and curdle before your eyes. He does not push it, but he never lets us forget that beneath the laid back hippy philosophizing, he is a man who cares only for himself and endangering his friends and strangers’ lives regularly so he can live a life devoid of any higher responsibility than doing whatever he wants at any given time.
The movie tries to play his eventual fate, which I won’t spoil, as a kind of beautiful elegy but I couldn’t shake Swayze’s performance in those final moments, making it taste like ash in my mouth. A selfish sociopath who never had to consider anyone else even after everything goes down.
Of course, this kind of talk elevates this movie and I don’t want to scare you off. It is easy to just watch it as a glossy crime action film that is slick and dumb and an absolute thrill. It is just, if you’d like to dig in a bit, you can find more below that adrenalized surface.
The Conclusion: A popcorn movie that has a fair amount of going on, not that you need to pay attention to any of it. Just enjoy the lovingly shot surf scenes and the delightfully silly bro-ing down that is going on.