Surf’s in and crime’s up in Kathryn Bigelow’s adrenaline-pumped action thriller
The 1980s were a truly golden time for the action movie in the USA. Schwarzenegger and Stallone were tearing the box office apart with maximum body count, carnage and chaos. The Cannon Group, with their cheap, cheerful and unrelenting approach, was also contributing massively to the genre’s appeal. Yet a new decade will inevitably demand some kind of identifiable progression, something to set one block of years apart from the one before it.
So it was in 1991, that two magnificent things happened to the action movie. One of them was Terminator 2: Judgement Day, James Cameron’s spectacular, state-of-the-art sequel to his medium-budget SF action horror of 1984. Mixing astonishing, massive action with truly mind-blowing special effects, T2 suddenly made every big-screen action escapade before it look very small and very modest, even the big-bang, high-octane likes of, say Die Hard 2 or Lethal Weapon 2. It was just too good. Nobody could stop raving about it.
The second magnificent thing to happen to action movies in 1991 might not have been anywhere near as culturally seismic, but nevertheless took the genre into fresh territory, offering a new kind of kinetic excitement that made it a lasting favourite. I’m talking about Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, a breathless, visceral adrenaline rush that grabs you by the scruff and pushes you out of a moving plane with no chute. Its chief concept, an FBI agent going undercover amongst the surfing circuit to hunt down a gang of adrenaline-junkie bank robbers who wear masks of ex-presidents, is more gonzo and offbeat than anything we’d seen before, and its promotional poster, with our outlaws wearing Nixon, Carter and Reagan masks (Johnson was MIA that day, I guess) suited, booted and casually posing with shotguns, is one of the more unforgettable images of its era.
Right from the off, it begins like few action movies had begun before. Transcendentally. We hear the sound of the ocean tide rushing, and that’s already enough to tell you that we’re not in regular territory, for few action films start this serenely, this chilled. The sound of the tide is then complemented by the sight of the sea, and even the credits, the way they fade in and drift from one side of the screen to the other, suggest some kind of becalming vibe. See how both Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze’s names, coming in from either side of the screen, eventually join together, a harmonious mixture foreshadows the duality and chemistry their two characters will share.
But this is also a vibe with a kick, for when the Point Break title settles into its place, it suddenly charges right towards us, the viewer, and it becomes clear that this is also going to be an exciting ride. Likewise, this opening, with the natural beauty of the waves and the bliss of the perfect surf, is juxtaposed (the only link being water) with FBI Special agent Johnny Utah (Reeves) blasting the total shit out of the targets at a practice exam in the pouring rain. The purity of nature, mixed with the brutality of man-made violence… it’s a thrilling combination, and one hell of a way to kick off a movie.
Johnny is not only a 100% crack shot on the firing range, he’s super-fit, takes the skin off of chicken and very keen to make a name for himself. He’s a ‘blue flame special… young, dumb and full of come’ who has, according to his superior Harp (a very pissed-off John C. McGinley) precisely zero hours experience and doesn’t belong here with the big shots. His assigned partner, veteran agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey, having a whale of a time), is as equally unimpressed with this fresh-faced Quantico cat, but they’re stuck together, and their big case concerns the Ex-Presidents, a crack-quartet of bank robbers who have managed to steal from 27 banks in three years. The trick to their success is their lack of greed – they only rob from the tills (never the vault) and disappear ‘like a virgin on prom night’ before law enforcement get a chance to arrive.
Yet Johnny believes in Pappas’ oft-dismissed theory that the Ex-Presidents are actually surfers. And the only way to catch them is to join their ranks, using surfer Tyler (Lori Petty) as his way in to this other world. Of course, Johnny is a phoney, a fraud, the typical city boy trying to fool the purer locals. The very essence of his mission is naturally based on lies, but you can’t help but wince when he pretends his parents were killed in order to win over the orphaned Tyler and peddles some crap about how the ocean’s calling to him. At the time it’s just part of the job, but by the time he’s been exposed as a liar, you realise just how much his lies have hurt. ‘Don’t you have a soul?’ asks Tyler later on.
Bodhi : If you want the ultimate, you’ve got to be willing to pay the ultimate price. It’s not tragic to die doing what you love.
Weirdly, one thing I’ve noticed over the years was Point Break‘s similarity to the very film that Bigelow’s earlier vampire classic Near Dark is regularly compared to – The Lost Boys. Not only are both film set in coastal ‘capitals of the world’ (bank robberies and murders respectively) but there’s the routine of the bank robbers themselves – they limit their crimes to the summer, and they disappear for the rest of the year, hibernating like vampires during the day. Surfing is seen as a strictly youthful activity – one kid patronises Johnny for being too old to start taking to the lifestyle, despite him being only 25 years old. Much like the vampires in The Lost Boys being part of a tribe, the surfing world has its own language and rules – you can’t just walk into the sea with your ‘pig board piece of shit’ and expect to pass off as one of them. Yet just like the world of the vampire, it’s just so tempting. Johnny may have a job to do, and doesn’t approach it enthusiastically at first, but it’s not long before he realises that ‘surfing’s the source… it’ll change your life’.
The surf movie, be it in the form of fictional escapade or ravishing documentary, was a cultural sensation in the 60s thanks to films like The Endless Summer and even well into the 70s with the likes of John Milius’ Big Wednesday. Above all else, from the carefree frivolity of AIP’s Beach Party series to the more meditative, transcendental experimentation of 1972‘s Crystal Voyager (where an extended POV surf sequence was scored by the entirety of Pink Floyd’s 22-minute long ‘Echoes’), this genre offered a thrilling, exciting lifestyle that literally existed on the borderline – between the land and the sea – with surfing the ultimate connection between the two. Its counter-cultural undertones, of rejecting the capitalist pull of the land and exploring the vast possibilities of nature, makes it one of the most vivid examples of cinema capturing something many of us won’t try in reality but love to experience vicariously.
The surf movie had seemed to die down during the 80s – skateboarding looked set to be the equivalent new fad for cinematic sports entertainment – yet by the time of the 90s, there was an urge to go back to the source. Johnny’s absorption into his new, alternative life is almost like a metaphor of where Point Break took the action movie – it starts off with a guy who never misses a shot, whose suited careerism has got him to the big leagues, a candidate for the perfect action hero, and yet he soon realises that not everything is black and white, that sometimes the bad guys can be fun (one thing our 80s action heroes never did have was a crisis of morality), that it’s easy to lose yourself and lose sight of what your mission is. Point Break itself is a glorious sidestep for the action movie, taking in the more personal stakes of the undercover sub-genre, adding romance both actual and metaphorical, and, compared to the happy-go-lucky kill count of earlier action films, it’s a film where each life taken is a devastating blow, and not just another notch on the death-bedpost. Of course, it’s also stupendously silly and often as totally unrealistic as the very best action films, but it’s got its sights on a sensation beyond what most of that genre even considers.
Yep, the ultimate ride is what the leader of the Ex-Presidents – Bodhi (Swayze)- and his loyal subjects are after. Keeping with the vampire metaphor, there is an overriding sense of ‘live fast/die young’ present here. Not living to see 30 seems to be the ethos of these guys, suggesting a kind of suspended perpetual youth. No shame in dying doing something you love, as Bodhi puts it. And if The Lost Boys and indeed Near Dark, with their highs of blood drinking, acted as shrewd metaphors for drug addiction, here it’s the unparalleled high of the adrenaline rush, beautifully encapsulated by the thrill of surfing at night. This is where Johnny’s soul awakens. ‘I can’t describe what I’m feeling’, he says with a shiver. ‘You don’t have to’, responds Tyler, in a scene that also recalls Near Dark‘s moment when Adrian Pasdar’s newly-turned vampire admits that the idea of a life eternal, albeit one dependent on killing is making him ‘shaky’. Both Near Dark and Point Break talk of the ‘price’ one must be prepared to pay if one wants the ultimate ride. Here, it’s a case of flying too close to the sun, or more specifically, surfing too close to the edge. This is exemplified in the legendary ’50-Year Storm’ that occurs in Bells Beach in Melbourne, Australia, which Bodhi is determined to experience. This is where the surfing in this film becomes some kind of mythical quest, where the Holy Grail or Excalibur of the film ends up being this unparalleled ride that may very well kill you, but will let you see the light in a way no other surf can match.
The mystical element of Point Break, as endorsed by Bodhi, is never mocked or seen as the ramblings of a hippie, instead adding to the dreamlike beauty of the film. Yeah, the sea as a place ‘where you lose yourself and find yourself’ might feel like it’s a set-up for parody, and even Johnny openly questions whether Bodhi’s going to start chanting at him, but the way the surfing and skydiving scenes tell you all you need to know whose side the film is on. These scenes are the gorgeous heart of the film, where the waves and sheer force of nature are captured on screen in all their glory. The cinematography during the surfing sequences is absolutely magnificent, catching the water in pin-sharp, exquisite detail, with the surfers (two of the Ex-Presidents were played by real surfers – BoJesse Christopher and John Philbin) riding the waves, embracing the elements, taking their chances against their unstoppable force and briefly attaining nirvana as a result. No action film had gone down this route before.
Yet despite the awesome, seductive pull of nature, it cannot be tamed. Unlike the clockwork precision of the heists, where everything works to their scheme, the water can only be respected and met on its own terms. Despite being warned by Tyler that Bodhi will take Johnny to the edge ‘and past it’, Bodhi is for the most part, exceptionally level-headed and smart – in fact, he’s one of least villainous and evil ‘villains’ in cinema. The only real bad guys are psycho savage-for-hire Rosie, and a bunch of idiotic Surf Nazis who ‘only live to get radical’, are blind to the spiritual side of the surf and who are Johnny and Pappas’ original line-up of suspects for the bank robberies. Hilariously, one of them is Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and another is Vincent Klyn, aka Fender Tremolo from Cyborg, who here has one of the all-time great nom du plumes in Warchild (although the character’s real name, Lupton Pittman, is just as spectacular).
Unfortunately, things start to fall apart once Johnny’s identity is revealed, with emotions coming to the fore, and all that discipline thrown out of the window. The other three Ex-Presidents, who wisely want to bail out, are assured by Bodhi that he has a way of resolving matters, and that this complication involving Johnny is merely an upping of the stakes in this game, a game he has to win because he refuses to be beat by the system, which Johnny represents. With Bodhi manipulating Johnny (using Tyler as a hostage) into joining them on their final bank raid, rules are broken, lives are lost and everything goes south. Yet Bodhi is still determined to ride this one all the way to the end, and maybe Johnny will join him, if he’s got the spirit. To say Johnny does is an understatement. In one of the most insane things performed by any character in any film ever, he jumps out of a plane without a parachute in order to catch his prey. In the end, we get a bittersweet resolution as Bodhi still gets away, but at least Tyler and Johnny are safely reunited. A bittersweet end, but an end, right?
Bodhi : Life sure has a sick sense of humour, doesn’t it?
Wrong. Cut to months later, where we discover that Johnny, unable to let it go and who still surfs everyday, has been pursuing Bodhi everywhere, finally catching him up in Bells Beach, home of the 50-year storm. It’s unknown whether or not Johnny and Tyler are still together – notably, she’s not mentioned. Acknowledging Johnny’s accusation that people trusted him and died, maybe sacrificing himself to the storm is the only way to cleanse himself. Mercifully, Johnny, despite fighting with him, handcuffing him and insisting that ‘it’s got to be that way’ in regards to Bodhi’s arrest, relents and lets him surf, knowing deep inside that he’s not going to make it back alive. In willingly letting Bodhi go, Johnny finally gives up the last shred of his old life and the chance to be a hero in a world where ‘Johnny Utah gets his man’, and, without looking back to see his friend/enemy die, chucks his badge in the water and walks off. The ride is over, and with it, a beautiful (if masochistic) friendship.
Much has been made of the homoerotic subtext. Reeves and Swayze are filmed with a kind of awed glow that only a cinematographer in love can deliver. Indeed, women have little to no place in this homosocial society – only the feisty Tyler with her androgynous name and short hair gets a look in, and even then she’s mostly sidelined and ends up being a damsel in distress in the final act. The relationship between Johnny and Bodhi is one of initial caution and hotheaded rivalry, but that soon gives way to brotherly camaraderie and eventually some kind of love, a far more intriguing and charged love than the more conventional one between Johnny and Tyler. When Johnny first sees Bodhi out there in the surf, that’s when he really begins to fall for this lifestyle. Sometimes this bromantic tension is blatantly upfront – you can read a line like ‘I know you want me so bad it’s like acid in your mouth’ two ways, but both ways are extremely in-your-face.
Metaphorically, their sex scene is the film’s first, amazing skydiving sequence. It’s the build-up of over an hour of tension between the two. Bodhi is the experienced one, Johnny the naive newcomer. Master and servant. There’s a hint of danger, but the eventual release is astonishing. The sheer scale and scope of this scene is utterly beautiful; filmed with a combination of real freefall action and clever trick photography for the dialogue scenes, they are a total shot of endorphins to the mind and body. Any issues Johnny has with these guys (this takes place after his cover’s been blown, so he’s putting himself wildly at risk) is obliterated by the sheer, right-here-right-now exhilaration of the jump. ‘YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!’ yells Johnny, overwhelmed with sheer adrenaline-fuelled pleasure.
Throughout, there’s what could be read as a parody of machismo. Point Break was written by a man (W. Peter Illif), but knowing that a woman directed the final picture can’t help but make one view the excess with a critical eye. It’s there right from the start, with that glorious slow-motion shot of Johnny cocking his shotgun. It plays so much like a parody of gun-and-muscle fetishism that you don’t know whether to swoon or laugh. Then there’s the almost hilariously overheated tempers of various characters, all of whom look set to burst. FBI director Harp is almost like a piss-take of that classic action movie trope, the pissed-off chief. Then there’s references to characters being hard-ons, and of course, Tyler’s classic ‘too much testosterone here!’ dig before she leaves a campfire full of overexcited blokes, plus her dismissal of the Surf Nazis as ‘macho assholes with a death wish’. The genius of Point Break is that it can’t be categorised as one thing or the other – if it is a parody, then it’s a loving one (the best ones always are) and one that is as much smitten with its subject matter as it is amused by its craziness.
After all, realism is not an issue. If it were, then Johnny being able to work as a field agent in the FBI despite one hell of a leg injury would have been scrapped early in the writing process. Johnny doesn’t even change his name when going undercover. It’s approaching James Bond-levels of who-gives-a-fuck. Plus he learns to surf in a day. You’d think there’d be some communication between bank robbery and the DEA before a raid is agreed on a gang where one of them is an agent working undercover (Tom Sizemore in a very pissed-off single scene). Oh, and you can’t have conversations during freefall. This lack of realism was what a lot of critics took umbrage with in Point Break, and you know what? I can’t blame them. Yet it’s just not that kind of film. A film which pushes the limit in its action scenes like this one risks tonal whiplash if it were to ground itself in too much credibility elsewhere, and so, with a full-throttle, illogical streak of melodrama in its veins, it just rides the wave.
Speaking of those action scenes – well, they’re second to none, and still amazing, picking up from the intense impact of Bigelow’s Blue Steel and upping the adrenaline. The raid on the Surf Nazis hideout packs one hell of a punch. With a build-up worthy of a steroid-injected Hitchcock, Pappas does his best to keep the lady at the door occupied with bullshit queries about a lost dog while Johnny tries to obtain visual evidence that the house is hot. And hot it is – drugs and a ‘fucking arsenal’ of weaponry is more than enough to get alarm bells ringing, but because of that goddamn lawnmower in the next garden, no one can hear Johnny’s desperate warning to get Pappas the hell away from there.
Johnny Utah : [Tosses the rubber Reagan mask at Bodhi’s feet] Lose somethin’, Brah?
Bodhi : Special Agent Utah! I knew I could count on you.
Johnny Utah : I’ve been to every city in Mexico. Came across an unclaimed piece of meat in Baja, turned out to be Rosie. Guess he picked a knife fight with somebody better. Found a passport of yours in Sumatra. Missed you by about a week in Fiji. But I knew you wouldn’t miss the 50-Year Storm, Bodhi.
The ensuing, chaotic raid that follows is absolutely hectic – the camera ducks and dives its way amongst the heavy firepower and confused shootout – it’s just as much of a hit to the nervous system as the more exhilarating surfing sequences, and the violence is really fucking spectacular, be it Kiedis accidentally blasting off his own foot or one chump who gets a bullet right in the forehead by Pappas. A showdown where Warchild is increasingly pushing Johnny’s face towards the rotor blades of a lawnmower is exceptionally dangerous looking and totally nail-biting.
Likewise, the foot chase between Johnny and Bodhi is a classic. It takes us over fences, past traffic, through houses, against dogs, pissed-off residents and glass doors, and then to what looks like the same tributary as T2‘s truck/bike chase (James Cameron executive produced Point Break, and was married to Bigelow at this time), where Johnny, who has Bodhi in his sights, can’t open fire because, well…they’re best buds now… Plus, those eyes. Who could resist? So begins the scene that fans of Hot Fuzz will know all too well, where Johnny shoots his gun impotently in the air, screaming in frustration. It’s an incredible, breathless scene, the best foot chase since the end of French Connection II.
The camerawork is often thrillingly kinetic, be it the long Steadicam take that follows Johnny from the reception of the bank robbery squad to its central hub, or the use of hand-held cameras and whiplash pans; unlike today where it’s done to the point of showing off a film’s perceived ‘rawness’, here it’s sparingly utilised so that when it does come, it pulls you right in the midst of the action and makes you feel like you’re really there. The editing packs a punch too. Look at the way the super-efficient Ex-Presidents suit-up and tool-up before they raid the bank in the van. Even the act of putting on a bulletproof vest is executed with the same punch as the loading or firing of a gun.
Benefiting Point Break immensely is the strength of its cast. Keanu Reeves remains one of those actors who can be very hit or miss – in just a year’s time he would be roundly mocked for his turn in Bram Stoker’s Dracula – but you can’t knock the man for his versatility and risk-taking, and this film saw him take on the mantle of the action hero splendidly. This was the first time he’d tried out the genre for which he’s probably best loved for, and while he has all the right athletic physicality for the character, he does so with a less overwhelmingly macho presence and more an outright beauty that made him very appealing after a decade of muscles upon muscles.
Similarly, this was a bold move for Patrick Swayze – this was his first film after Ghost, a film which had reached Dirty Dancing-levels of immense popularity the year before. Taking on the role of an antagonist, albeit a more seductive and likeable one than most of the norm, was an interesting left-field turn. Plus he’d ditched the clean-shaven look and opted for a truly rocking beard. His Bodhi is the magnetic core of Point Break, a villain its difficult to hate thanks to his sheer persuasive charisma – plus his stuntwork is pretty damn spectacular, which only adds to how much he brings to the role.
Props must be given also to the clever casting of Busey – a genius move, connecting the film back to a surfing classic from the 70’s, Big Wednesday. He threatens to steal everything as cigar-chomping Pappas – clearly cherishing a role that lets him have as much fun as possible (without him being reduced to comic relief – his death still stings), whether he’s performing insane dives into swimming pools or demanding two ‘roadkill’ subs. He has terrific chemistry with Reeves too. Elsewhere Petty gives plenty of energetic charm as Tyler, and of the other Ex-Presidents, James Le Gros rivals Busey for sheer manic spirit as Roach, who runs rampant when in his Nixon mask during the robbery scenes.
Pleasingly, Point Break did pretty damn good business at the box office – to date it’s one of Bigelow’s few box office successes. Yet its popularity continued to grow well beyond its cinema run, emerging into a proper cult phenomenon. There have even been adapted theatre performances, where a lucky audience member can get up on stage and play Johnny with the help of cue cards. Today, the film remains utterly fresh, reinvigorating the action movie yet being so unique in its execution that few have attempted to replicate its charms. It’s still 100% pure adrenaline, all the way.