Nutshell: Young F.B.I. Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) has been partnered with Agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), tasked with solving a string of bank robberies defined by their speed and the presidential masks worn by the crooks. Chasing a lead, Utah infiltrates the world of surf gangs, using a romantic interest in local Tyler (Lori Petty) to get close to Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), the leader of the bank robbers and all-around guru of beach vibes and tests of endurance. Finding himself caught up with Bodhi’s crew, Utah loses sight of his objective, siding more with the criminal element the longer he remains undercover.
1991: “Point Break” was a film of, as advertised, “100% pure adrenaline,” a feeling that was both thrilling and confusing. In one of those bizarre mysteries of my adolescent moviegoing taste, I actually had the nerve to dismiss the picture in 1991, handing it a mediocre review in the Brichives. I was delighted with the opening detective work, but deflated once answers were revealed at the hour mark. Sheesh, so hard to please!
Discomfort with my initial assessment arrives because I now consider “Point Break” to be one of my favorite features, with the older me able to compute the tonal shifts of the screenplay, fully appreciating what director Kathryn Bigelow accomplished in an often lumbering genre. Over the last two decades, I’ve always supported the picture, extolling its virtues to others and pushing it as a sort of semi-classic of the 1990s. I’m a little freaked out by that Brichives revelation, which doesn’t make a lick of sense, but clearly the movie didn’t settle nearly as smoothly as I recollect. I’ve shifted my opinion on countless films throughout the years, but damn, I just assumed I was BFFs with “Point Break” since the beginning.
I suppose home video was the breakthrough, with repeated viewings helping to soften the blow of the mid-movie switcheroo. Away from the impact of the silver screen, “Point Break” could be approached intimately, permitting me to break down and study its many delights. However, the real solidification of adoration came with a viewing at a repertory theater in Minneapolis (the departed Oak Street Cinema), where I could accept the big screen awe of the film, fully aware of every step it was going to make. “Point Break” became a religion that night.
On a side note, with the release of “Point Break” came the odd teaser trailer for “Alien 3.” You remember, the piece of marketing that insinuated that the intergalactic, acid-blood-dripping threat was going to invade Earth for the third go-around? What a tease indeed. It was a trailer I constantly pushed to peek at during my movie theater shifts, my mind reeling with the possibilities of an “Alien” feature set on Earth. This was a time before instant movie spoilers, allowing me a sweet moment of cluelessness about what type of film Fox would ultimately produce. The teaser is still bitchin’ but so utterly misleading. I should’ve contacted a lawyer.
2011: When I view “Point Break” today, I understand how outsiders could view the film as enormously goofball. The picture carries an unnerving sincerity about it, taking the plot with utmost gravity, believing in the corruption of Utah and the spirituality of Bodhi.
Most people come for the thrills, but I respond more profoundly to “Point Break” and the manner Bigelow constructs its myriad of action and male bonding sequences. The screenplay is ambitious, taking to land, sea, and air as Utah monitors his wily suspect. Instead of feeling intimidated by the cinematic challenge, Bigelow makes a fist and dives right into the deep end, staging furious moments of conflict and distress, feeling the intensity of the moment (a berserker tone no doubt shepherded by production guru James Cameron) as hotly as Bodhi, keeping the film’s thematic grind of adrenaline addicts in play as Utah keeps blowing opportunities to catch his man.
And I mean literal land, sea, and air excursions. The picture’s dynamite chase sequences not only tear up Los Angeles neighborhoods with a pronounced summertime boil (the cinematography by Donald Peterman is all orangey and heavenly), but they also make a dash for the ocean, staging gorgeous surfing stunts, eventually moving over to a few skydiving sequences, one of which clearly demonstrates Swayze’s don’t-tell-the-insurance-guy bravado as he leaps out of an airborne plane. No stunt guy there. Bigelow keeps the havoc raw, but she’s interested in the splendor of the moment, taking precious screen time to survey the insanity, allowing the viewer to comprehend the complexity of Utah’s dilemma.
“Point Break” is a beautifully directed feature film, boldly tossing around its characters, challenging the actors to endure some extreme physical situations while feeding juicy dialogue to Swayze, who plays Bodhi with such an extreme commitment to beach bum rapture, I’m not entirely convinced it’s acting. This stuff is firmly within Swayze’s wheelhouse and he’s marvelous as the bronzed tormentor, making a fine villain of unnervingly even-keeled wickedness, but also a tempting figure of companionship, offering the inducted a wild mouse ride of turbulent experiences that enhance life. Also suited for duty here is Reeves, spraying his “whoa” hose in all the right directions as the slightly dim, mostly ballsy F.B.I. agent who can’t help but side with the bad guys. Reeves has a sharp physicality for the part and his intensity is never in doubt.
But who ends up stealing the movie? Gary Busey. In the only likable role of his career, Busey is a fun, frisky presence as the wizened agent with a wild theory about the bank robbers. The actor has never been this agreeable. Considering how irritatingly feral Busey has become over the years, it’s a shock to look forward to his scenes, particularly the classic moment where Pappas nearly achieves an erection over the thought of a local dive’s meatball sandwiches. “Utah, gimme two!” It’s a mantra I employ to this day.
And if you enjoy John C. McGinley’s acting, well, he’s here too, doing the one thing he always does. However, he does it best here.
If there has to be a complaint raised about “Point Break,” it would be to question the resolution of the picture, which feels tacked on, following Utah to Australia to catch Bodhi as he prepares for the wave of a lifetime. I’ve never read the script, but the ending resembles a reshoot, with Reeves in his “Bill & Ted” hair and Swayze looking decidedly deflated from his Bodhi prime. Perhaps test audiences hated to see the bad guy go unpunished, resulting in an epilogue of sorts that crudely injects one last action beat into a tuckered-out picture. It’s an epic end to Bodhi, but stretches “Point Break” out too far.
“Point Break” has been ridiculed, lampooned, and formed into an object of lust by an equally masterful motion picture, 2007’s “Hot Fuzz.” The essence of movie remains unsullied, and with every viewing comes fresh details and a new appreciation for the film’s fearlessness and originality in the midst of all of the cop formula. It’s a special motion picture to me, now more than ever. Thank goodness I didn’t give up on it after that initial showing in 1991.