F This Movie Fest!
Kathryn Bigelow is a great director. She's the only woman to ever win the Oscar for directing (great job, Academy!). Her 2009 movie The Hurt Locker won Best Picture. Her new movie, Zero Dark Thirty, is up for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, even if Bigelow isn't nominated (the movie directed itself). It was named by a whole mess of critics' groups as the best movie of 2012. Her 1995 movie Strange Days has a huge cult following. Near Dark is considered by many -- including our own JB -- to be one of the greatest vampire movies of all time. She's done a lot of good work.
But Point Break is still her best movie.
I don't say this to be contrarian or inflammatory. I say that Point Break is her best movie because I FUCKING LOVE POINT BREAK. I do not love Point Break ironically. I think it's a great movie. It is silly, yes, but aware of its own silliness -- and, better yet, transcends its silliness. The greatness of the movie is that it begins with a ridiculous premise and takes it completely seriously, reflecting on concepts of masculinity and action movie tropes at the same time that it philosophizes about the spirituality of things like surfing, skydiving and violence. And kicking much ass.
It's so easy to make fun of Point Break, because it's about surfing and Keanu Reeves is in it and he says "whoa" and doesn't he talk like a surfer? and Patrick Swayze has silly hair and it's about bank robbing surfers dressed as presidents. And so, for years, it has been written off by all but the most devoted, at best getting damned with faint "better than it should be" praise. If the movie actually got the credit it deserves, it would be recognized not just as one of the best action movies of 1991 -- arguably the best year for action movies ever -- but of the entire decade. Maybe ever.
There's more stuff that's great about Point Break than I can list here. I'll give some credit to the writer, W. Peter Iliff (who also wrote Varsity Blues, making him Doug's hero), who wrote a script in which the action comes completely from character -- it's like Die Hard that way. But it's Kathryn Bigelow who elevates Point Break from good to great by making every sequence visceral and immediate and memorable. The surfing sequences are haunting and beautifully photographed, almost serving to convince you of the mystical bullshit that the characters are spouting. The skydiving scene(s) are the best ever filmed (for point of comparison, check out the terrible green-screen skydiving sequences in the Wesley Snipes action movie Drop Zone). There is a foot chase at about the midpoint that's one of the best chase scenes ever. Bigelow pulls off a very difficult trick -- one that would become very popular in the post-Scream world -- in which she makes a movie that's as much about the thing as it is the thing. That's not to say that Point Break is some work of postmodern deconstruction of the action movie -- though it is, in a way, a deconstruction of the action hero. Bigelow wants to make a movie about the allure of the rush, so she makes a movie that's ALL rush. She seduces us with the thrill of kinetics the way that Bodhi seduces Johnny Fucking Utah.
Keanu Reeves takes a lot of shit for being a terrible actor. I do not agree with this assessment. He has been miscast many times, and given stiff, awkward performances in many movies. But he's not a bad actor; in fact, in the right movie, he's pretty great. Point Break is the right movie. He's charming and cocky when it starts, and surfing tears down Johnny Fucking Utah and builds him back up just as Point Break tears down Reeves and builds him back up as an action hero. Even Reeves' "blank slate" approach works, because Johnny Fucking Utah is an empty vessel waiting to be filled (even if he doesn't know it). It's the 100% pure adrenaline that fills him. Between this movie, Speed and The Matrix, Keanu Reeves starred in three of the best action movies of the 1990s (if not all time). I can't think of another actor with three action movies of this caliber in a 10-year span, which is weird because Keanu Reeves is not really known for being an action hero. I guess movies like Chain Reaction don't help his case.
Lethal Weapon and Predator 2. Lori Petty, an actress of whom I've never been particularly fond, seems like an unusual choice for the female lead at first. She's small and plucky, quirky instead of the conventionally beautiful leading lady we usually get in action movies. But this is her best performance, partially because she feels unconventional, but also because she has real chemistry with Keanu. The exchange they share after the nighttime surfing sequence -- the one right before they SPOILERS do it for the first time -- is really terrific, and amusing in the way that it crosses textual lines. When Tyler tells Johnny Fucking Utah that he usually has a stiff look of focused concentration on his face but appears to have loosened up, it might as well be Lori Petty talking to Keanu Reeves about his acting. He loosens up in Point Break, but, more importantly, he grows up. This is our first look at Keanu the Adult, Keanu the Leading Man, Keanu the Action Hero.
Side note: In 1991, Keanu starred in three movies: Point Break, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (part of F This Movie Fest 2) and Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. He is different in all three, and good in all of them. When people argue that Keanu has no talent or range, I will start referring them to the year 1991.
Point Break lives on in pop culture, mostly as a joke (it was the source of one of the best gags in the great Hot Fuzz) or as a point of comparison, like when The Fast and the Furious was released and everyone correctly noted that it was just Point Break set in the world of illegal street racing, even though the 1987 movie No Man's Land, starring D.B. Sweeney and Charlie Sheen, was technically there before both. I'm sure that I risk scorn and mockery not just for admitting that I love it, but for suggesting that it's a truly great movie. Too bad. I'm right about this. It's a rare action movie that gives us things we've never seen before, whether it's the sight of Patrick Swayze (RIP) putting his money where his mouth is, shouting "Adios amigo!" into the camera and jumping out of a plane in a single take -- no stunt doubles there -- or Keanu Reeves chasing after him seconds later by leaping out of the same plane without a parachute. It's the moment the whole movie has been building towards -- the logical culmination of the relationship between Bodhi and Johnny Fucking Utah, and at the same time the moment at which Johnny Fucking Utah achieves self-actualization. If this were The Matrix, it would be Neo realizing he's The One. It's one of my favorite beats in any action movie ever.
Everyone gives it their all in Point Break. The performances are all great. Kathryn Bigelow directs the shit out of it. Point Break doesn't just give us everything we love in an action movie. It examines why we love action movies. And the answer is because of movies like Point Break.