When the Coolidge announced earlier this year that they were doing a Kathryn Bigelow-themed weekend of midnight features and were showing Point Break, we went a little nuts. Like “McRib is back!” nuts, or the particular sort of adolescent crazy that Harry Potter fans have all over the world when a new book or movie drops. The thought of seeing this with a crazy big audience, steeped and primed for the silliness to come, who knew the lines and were willing to not throw things at people who quoted along, drove us absolutely batty with glee.
And then we watched it again this week, and it hit us: Point Break really is one of the best action films of the ’90s, and it might be one of the best ever made.
You know the gist: FBI Agent (Keanu Reeves) is tasked with finding a group of bank robbers dressed as ex-presidents, FBI Agent and his partner (Gary Busey) have a hunch that they might be surfers. So, FBI Agent learns how to surf from a smokin’ hot boi (Lori Petty), and integrates himself with a group of surfers led by a super cool dude (Patrick Swayze). Eventually his loyalties are tested when he discovers that super cool dude and his surfer buds are actually the guys robbing the banks.
Reeves gets a lot of stupid bullshit thrown his way for his laconic delivery and choice of roles (though thankfully that’s finally changing with the John Wick movies and some of his indie work as of late), but he’s brilliantly cast here as the wonderfully-named Johnny Utah, a Buckeye quarterback turned lawyer turned FBI agent. Bigelow was right to advocate on Reeves’ behalf in the face of studio naysayers who only thought of him as a comedic actor and, hell, in all honesty he’s probably the closest to your stereotypical surfer than anyone else in the cast. Utah’s discovery and assertion of self drives much of the plot of the film, as he tries to reconcile the expectations of those around him and his superiors with the attitudes and ideas of the surfer gang he’s trying to infiltrate, and Reeves sells us on that shit. He just sort of disappears into the role when they hit the beach for the first time (which you can’t really say about much of the man’s other work, aside from Wick, Ted and a few additional roles). Perhaps it also helps that he’s dead sexy in this movie, but we like him even when his shirt’s on.
Bigelow uses him as a solid foundation for a ridiculous cast (just to name a few: Petty, John C. McGinley, Anthony Kiedis, and a Tom Sizemore cameo for the ages) firing on all-cylinders, no one more unhinged than Gary fuckin’ Busey. As Utah’s bitter partner Kappas, he throws out one-liners like nobody’s business, the best being when he freaks out on Utah barely 20 minutes into the film. He’s grizzled and tough, and just enough of a cynic that he allows the movie to wink at its audience, and it’s always super upsetting to see him kick the bucket at the end of the movie (22-two years! All for nothing!). But one name looms above them all when it comes to talking about Point Break, and that name is Swayze (insert “not the rapper” joke here).
As we’ve mentioned before in our Donnie Darko retrospective, Patrick Swayze is one of the most underrated leading men of his era, and he’s just wonderful here. He just oozes charisma as Bodhi, and it’s completely understandable why a buttoned-down jock like Utah would fall head over heels for him — he’s essentially a free man, having found a way to live outside of the system and on the waves. Bodhi lives by a code, and it’s because of this code and his breaking it that Point Break becomes Swayze’s tragedy as much as it’s a tale of Utah’s self-discovery and the reclamation of his identity away from “the man.”
If the measure of one’s ideals is how they stand up when the going gets tough, Bodhi’s zen maxims aren’t worth much more than the empty platitudes you’d find inside the wrapper of your average piece of Dove chocolate. That’s not to say that they’re totally meaningless — obviously to Utah they aren’t — but by the time Bodhi’s unloading his pistol into an off-duty cop who tries to stop their last big score, the man who abhorred violence mere minutes earlier has completely disappeared. It’s like Swayze is playing a twisted version of Dalton, his iconic character from the bizarro bouncer flick Road House, who lived by a code and stuck to it, much like your average western hero would when they’d ride into town. For many, this would be Swayze’s last major role (unless you’re counting To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, which we sincerely hope the Coolidge plays in the future), and it’s a shame that we never got to see him in another role as good as this one.
Despite a painful lack of recognition until The Hurt Locker blew up and re-emphasized to her colleges how skilled she actually was, Kathryn Bigelow has always been among the best at what she does. She’s easily the equal (and arguably the better) of her former husband and Point Break producer James Cameron, and if there’s any argument to be made for that on sheer genre skill, it’s this film, her fourth feature. She’s got one of the best eyes in the business for propulsive action filmmaking, and is willing to put the effort in to establish the stakes like few other filmmakers. The only reason there’s two sky-diving sequences in this movie is to stress just how incredibly insane Utah’s parachute-less dive in the second one is, but she never makes it feel excessive in the moment.
Bigelow knows like no one else how to ratchet up the tension in any sequence, while also stacking it with incredibly dense and iconic imagery. The Ex-Presidents alone are justification for its inclusion in the annals of action filmmaking, but Bigelow isn’t content to just give us well-paced heists with thieves wearing the heads of dead presidents. Instead, she gives us darkly comic and fascinating shots of things like Bodhi, in full Reagan regalia, burning a getaway car with a lit gas nozzle spraying fire all around him. She’s also not afraid to let the homoerotic subtext float around unashamedly (see this article for some more fun analysis on that front), an aspect perhaps unintentionally passed on to its plagiarized progeny, The Fast and The Furious and its sequels.
As such, Point Break is one of the foundational texts of modern action cinema, though it’s never nearly acknowledged as much as something like Die Hard’s character innovations or the shaky-cam stylings of Spielberg and Greengrass. It’s a movie whose brilliant casting, ridiculous (and fun) plotting, intense stunt work, and the masterful skill of its director, helped to forever change and shape every ludicrous thriller and extreme-sports flavored film that came after it. And accept no shitty remake substitutions: 25-five years later it still can drive an audience crazy.