Monday, January 28, 2013

Movies I Love: Point Break

by Patrick Bromley
Only 5 days until 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.
Reeves plays Johnny Fucking Utah, the best-named hero in action movie history, an upstart FBI agent just out of the academy. He's partnered with the burned-out Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) to investigate a series of bank robberies which Pappas believes are being committed by surfers (calling themselves "The Ex-Presidents," because they wear rubber masks of Nixon, Reagan, Carter and LBJ) who use the money to fund their summers and then disappear to where the next set of waves are. Tasked with ingratiating himself with the local surfers, Reeves goes undercover and hooks up with Tyler (Lori Petty), his new surfing instructor and gateway to the beaches. She introduces him to Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), the charismatic leader of a group of beach bums with a zen philosophy about his recreations. As Johnny Fucking Utah is drawn further and further into Bodhi's world, the danger increases. The stakes increase. And Johnny Fucking Utah realizes he likes it.

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.
But the movie benefits from some good supporting performances, too. John C. McGinley plays the John C. McGinley part (the Angry, Yelling Asshole) to the point where it becomes parody -- just another archetype that Point Break embraces in its exploration of action movie masculinity (it breaks down a single cinematic "type" -- action movie guy -- into a number of sub-types; all of the leads in the movie play a different aspect of the traditional action hero). Gary Busey has one of his best character roles, reminding us that he was once capable of being loose and funny without seeming batshit nutty -- and this comes off a string of playing heavies and bad-guy roles in stuff like 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.
Second side note: Point Break was released in 1991, arguably the best year for action movies ever and the year being celebrated at this year's F This Movie Fest. Of COURSE it was in the running for the fest, but was taken out of the lineup for a number of reasons. Having said that, you don't need a film festival as an excuse to watch Point Break. Every day can be Point Break day.


  1. Great write-up Patrick! Point Break has (and will always be) the BEST! I like that you gave props to Keanu Reeves and mention why he deserves a lifetime pass from mockery (Point Break, Speed, The Matrix). The same could also be said about Swayze (between this and Road House).

    Did you ever see Something's Gotta Give? That movie surprised the hell out of me. It's the most relaxed, charismatic Keanu performance perhaps ever. I guess he just needed an old lady to put the moves on.

    1. Patrick mentions its sequel in passing in this article, but I would also like to add Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to that list of movies that should offer Keanu Reeves a pass. It's comedy, not action, but I think he's great in that movie, and that character works well for him.

    2. I'm a big Keanu Reeves fan, but going into every one of his movies is stressful -- I have to hold my breath until I figure out which Keanu is going to show up. Something's Gotta Give is good Keanu. The Watcher? Bad Keanu.

      I actually really like The Lake House, too. I AM A MAN.

    3. The Watcher is a bad movie, no question, but Keanu's blankness sort of works for him in it, I thought. I don't remember much about the movie other than feeling that he was good in the part, despite the lousy material. Maybe it's worth revisiting.

    4. You could very well be right. I don't remember anything about the movie except that I really didn't like it, and maybe I'm just confusing the BLAHness of the movie with Keanu's performance.

      I used to have a theory that Keanu was good as long as he doesn't have to do an accent. Bram Stoker's Dracula will back me up.

  2. I haven't seen Point Break in years but I rememeber it being exactly as great as you describe. All the mockery it has received in the intervening years had convinced me I was wrong in enjoying it so much. Glad to know my original impression is the correct one. Time to revisit.

  3. I actually blind bought Pont Break not too long ago, because I was pretty sure I had read from multiple sources that it was awesome and something worth seeing that I would enjoy. Also, it was really cheap on Blu-ray. Sadly, I still haven't gotten around to watching it yet. Here's my excuse to do so, I guess!

    1. So I finally dedcided it was time to get around to watching this movie. And my reaction? Awesome status: Confirmed! It was fun, and Kathryn Bigelow is a great director. It also features good Keanu for sure, with great performances from all the rest of the cast, too, as you pointed out. Overall, it's a very enjoyable watch.

      I'm always intrigued by "alternate" choices that "might have been" for actors and directors, and it's interesting that this movie could have originally been a Ridley Scott project and featured Matthew Broderick and Charlie sheen (that's what I read anyway. I don't know much truth there is to that statement). I wonder how that would have turned out. As it stands, though, I love what we have today!

    2. YES! Glad you saw and liked it.

      I can't wrap my head around a version of this movie in which Matthew Broderick plays Johnny Utah. It sounds like, just based on the casting, the tone of the movie would have been way different. I'm glad we got the version we got.

  4. Great points about Keanu's versatility in three different roles on three separate 1991 movies. I don't love or hate Keanu but he's definitely at the whim of the filmmakers he works with, with his performance alone never a good-enough asset to save or lift a movie except maybe for the "Bill & Ted" movies (IMO). Put Keanu with average directors (Scott Derrickson, Brian Robbins or even Alfonso Arau and Andrew Davis on their 'off' days) instead of one's in their prime (Jan de Bont, the Wachawskis) where he's part of something bigger than his characters and Keanu's lost amidst the sea of mediocrity that are "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Hard Ball," etc.

    I've given "Point Break" enough chances (about five) to know that I just plain don't like it, which may have more to do with Bigelow's direction (I've never truly liked any movie she's done) and my own personal bias about which action movies rock my world and which I find overwhelming and ridiculous. Curious, how close was "Point Break" to being part of the festival line-up? It seems it could have swapped places with "The Last Boy Scout." Maybe now that Bigelow has hit it big "Point Break" will get re-discovered. Uh, yay?

    My new-to-me movies, which I've switched to 1991 flicks in honor of this week. :-)

    1/27/13, the John Hughes scripted and produced (one of four films in '91) Ed O'Neil vehicle DUTCH on Amazon Instant Video.

    1/28/13, JB's 'patting yourself on the back' effect gets tested (or not?) with Krzysztof Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991) on Blu-ray.

  5. I watched Zero Dark Thirty and Point Break yesterday. I look forward to watching Point Break again in the future. I can't say the same about Zero Dark Thirty.

  6. Can I admit something? I've never actually seen Point Break. I KNOW.

  7. This is a great review for a great movie. I've loved Point Break for years. Also, it has a great Ratt song at the end credits. No, I'm not joking. Ratt rocks.

  8. Thank you! Point Break is fucking awesome, and I dare say it shaped me into the man I am today!

    And thank you again for giving recognition to Keanu Reeves, I'm so sick and tired of people belittling his acting skills while praising the non-existent "talent" of Johnny Depp, I mean, what kind of alternate universe do we live in?

    We owe 2 decades of unrivaled entertainment to this man (Point Break, Matrix, Speed, Hard Ball, Constantine, The Devil's Advocate, Little Buddha) and yet we smear him every chance we get, why?

    If you are honest with yourself, he's better than most actors working today!

    1. Thanks and welcome, Mr. Hank. Congratulations on your fantastic avatar. You will do well here.

      I don't know if I can agree that Keanu is better than most actors today (and I say this as someone who loves Keanu Reeves), but he has strengths that are too often dismissed. He's an actor of limited range, but he should get credit for the things he does very well.

      Speaking of which, have you seen Man of Tai Chi? Keanu needs to direct more movies. It's terrific.

    2. Did he direct that? I saw Man of Tai Chi about a month ago, I thought it was a decent western knock-off of a traditional martial arts movie, now that I know he directed it, it does not surprise me that he was the best part of the film BY FAR.

      The wimpy looking protagonist is not only impossible to relate, the casting choice is actually downright offensive to the Asian viewing audience IMO - I am Asian. I mean, go right ahead and cast a goofy looking Asian midget with a questionably androgynous hair-do to face off against Keanu Reeves, nice!

    3. Nooooo! I loved Tiger Chen. I loved that he was small and I loved his adorable haircut. Much more in the Jackie Chan tradition, minus the comedy. And I'm fascinated that Tiger Chen played a character named Tiger Chen. I loved that movie. We will have to agree to disagree, I guess!

  9. Inspired by your Washington Post mention and with some trepidation (could it possibly live up to the hype? Did I need to have seen it at the time?) I watched Point Break for the first time last night and holy shit did I ever love it. And without a trace of irony - I love it purely and unabashedly for really all of the reasons you touch upon in this great essay. I have the blu-ray and it came out of the gate just looking really fantastic I thought - it is beautifully photographed and just from a technical standpoint it hits all the checkmarks. And the performances - I've always loved Keanu and McGinley's a great character actor but I love everybody in this movie. Ah man, it's just so great.

    I can't imagine what the hell they're trying to accomplish with the remake (already done pretty well with The Fast and the Furious anyway) - I'm torn between a boycott and dying to see if they can actually pull off something interesting somehow.

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