Point Break (1991)
There are so many action movie classics that people call the best, but for me, Point Break is a special, unique film that is, without a doubt, my favorite action movie of all time. What compels me about this movie that beyond all others is the intense relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. It creates this amazingly unique dynamic that forges the entire electric, kamikaze adrenalin rush of this film. So, let’s delve into Kathryn Bigelow’s action classic.
Rookie FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) goes undercover to infiltrate a cache of Southern California surfers suspected of robbing banks. Utah, a former football player, is assigned to Los Angeles. There, four bank robbers, who wear rubber masks and call themselves “The Ex-Presidents,” have executed a series of successful robberies which embarrassingly have the FBI stumped. Utah, and his partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) suspect that the robbers are surfers and hatch a plan for catching them, but the deeper Utah gets connected to the charismatic adrenalin driven Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and the beautiful Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) the harder it is for him to jump off this tidal wave of danger and excitement.
Point Break absolutely lives up to its premise as being 100% pure adrenalin. The surfing aspect is just the entryway into this, but it remains at the core of the whole film. That elevated experience shared by Bodhi and Johnny, specifically, is what fuses those two characters together, and is treated with great respect by the filmmakers. The skydiving sequences escalate that to another level with breathtaking cinematography that envelopes you in the experience, and make for a radically insane sequence where Johnny jumps out of the plane, without a parachute, to capture the escaping Bodhi. The earlier chase sequence is visceral and intense that really utilizes a rougher style of camera exceptionally well. And of course, the bank robberies are slam banged into a high gear that shows just how proficient and threatening the Ex-Presidents are. It is no wonder why the FBI has not been able to catch them after twenty-seven banks over three years. Wrap all of this up, and you’ve got a film that goes for the physical thrill of the moment over special effects spectacle. It’s really all about the character dynamics and these scenarios of extreme rushes that provide the high octane exhilaration of Point Break.
Beyond just the action, the core of this film’s compelling energy are the excellent arcs for both Johnny and Bodhi. You see Special Agent Utah at the start being this fresh from the academy FBI rookie all straight laced and green, but you can see the eagerness underneath that later fuels that adrenalin junkie urge. Johnny and Bodhi become genuinely intertwined in a naturally evolving way that inches Utah further towards that kamikaze impulse. Bodhi’s charisma and aura sucks Johnny right in, but it’s never manipulative. Everything Bodhi conveys is honest straight to his core, and every word of it energizes Johnny. Most action films have a clear delineation between the protagonist and the antagonist, but here, things are not so clean cut. Once Johnny is caught up in Bodhi’s tsunami of pure adrenalin, there’s no way out, and he has to ride it out all the way to its heart pounding, violent end. Bodhi will push everything to its absolute breaking point while risking everything and everyone in the process, and there is a price to pay for it.
Quite frankly, this would have to be the movie that made me a serious Keanu Reeves fan. A lot of people give him crap, but I give him a lot of credit. There’s a great deal of subtle development of Johnny Utah between Reeves’ performance and Bigelow’s direction. This all occurs as he further embraces the philosophy of Bodhi and his love for Tyler. Keanu Reeves and Lori Petty have very pure, heartwarming chemistry. Tyler is vibrant and full of brightness that adds glowing life to Johnny. Meanwhile, as the connection between Johnny and Bodhi intensifies, so does the performance of Reeves. Johnny becomes more confident, more determined, and less bound by rules as he is propelled out of control through Bodhi’s deadly thrill ride. I feel Reeves becomes more compelling as the third act shifts into high gear, and Johnny has to has to jump right off the deep end after Bodhi.
Kathryn Bigelow’s direction really envelopes you into Johnny’s mindset whether he’s mesmerized, haunted, elated, or burning with conviction. Through all of this Reeves is genuine and sincere in his emotions. You are kept very closely in tuned with Johnny’s mindset through successes, failures, and conflicts. Point Break is a film that drives everything right to the edge. Every danger, every extreme, every adrenalin rush is pushed to its insane limits at whatever cost imaginable. Bodhi embraces this without hesitation or a moral compass. He’s essentially a barreling freight train unwilling to put on the brakes regardless of what it will cost him.
Patrick Swayze is wickedly good as Bodhi. He envelopes the character entirely in philosophy, conviction, physicality, and spirituality. I love how Bodhi has this ethereal link to the sea, and gains a serenity from surfing while being an extreme adrenalin junkie. Yet, it’s not merely about the thrill with the bank robberies. He has a greater purpose by showing the shackled masses living their mundane, slave to the grind lives that the human spirit is thriving within his crew. Swayze is so electrifying with his natural charisma and intense commitment to the character. When I watch this film, I don’t perceive Patrick Swayze playing a role. I see Bodhi through and through. Swayze is stunningly excellent here, and I’m still a little sad that he is no longer with us. He was an amazingly talented actor, and this should stand as one of his best, most compelling performances.
Rounding out the main cast is Gary Busey in a great, entertaining role as Angelo Pappas. He can be hilariously funny and quirky, but solidly dramatic in the right moments. It’s a really well rounded character portrayed by an actor with the smart talent to balance those elements out perfectly. Plus, there’s John C. McGinley as FBI Director Ben Harp. Surely, he might seem like the stereotypical loud mouthed boss slinging insults around to his subordinates, but McGinley’s such a strongly talented actor that it never comes off as shallow or tired. Add in a touch of smug arrogance, and the character of Harp works dead-on-the-mark in McGinley’s hands.
The musical score by Mark Isham is really fantastic. For one, I love how he captures the enveloping spiritual sense of the sea with smooth, flowing compositions. It’s very beautiful work that reflects the philosophies of Bodhi long before he enters the film officially. There is another gorgeous cue that reflects the mystique of Bodhi that’s only a few chords, but it’s repeated a few times to very magical effect. The action cues are good, yet subtle. Isham never bombards you with pounding percussion.
The soundtrack is energized with songs that capture that Southern California feel from bands such as L.A. Guns, Concrete Blonde, Jimi Hendrix, Public Image Ltd., and capped off with my beloved “Nobody Rides For Free” by Ratt. That song perfectly concludes the film, and reflects the constant energy and excitement that runs through it.
The film really escalates to another level when Johnny realizes who the Ex-Presidents actually are, and that super charges every scene from there on out. The emotions hang on the razor’s edge. For Bodhi, it ups the stakes making the adrenalin rush and peril even more appetizing for him. For Johnny, it creates conflict as he has forged a very close bond and kinship with Bodhi, but is soon forced to do whatever is necessary as Tyler is put into imminent peril. Unlike most action movies such as Die Hard where it’s very straight forward that this is the bad guy and he’s going to die without question, Point Break makes it all far less certain because all of these emotions, some are unexplainable, cloud and complicate the issue. What all of this builds to is possibly my favorite movie ending of all time that entirely departs from all action film expectations.
The relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi reaches its apex on a storm soaked beach. Their connection remains electrifying as these two clash, but it’s not the fist fight that makes this as great as it is. Johnny finally has Bodhi in handcuffs ready to put him in a cage for life, but it’s that spiritual kinship between the two that sparks off something unique. All the groundwork for this ending is laid early on in the film in one scene over a bonfire, and the pay-off is amazing to me. Point Break is my favorite action film not because it has the best action sequences, or because of its pleasantly memorable dialogue. It’s because of the culmination of this ending. Everything that these two characters have developed between each other throughout the movie is so smartly interwoven, setup, and punctuated here. It concludes an amazing arc for Johnny Utah who begins as this clean cut rookie FBI Agent who changes into someone driven by impulse, emotion, and that inexplicable sensation he gets out on those waves. He pursues Bodhi down around the world for months on end, but in those final moments with an honest plea from Bodhi that only Johnny can understand fully, you get an ending that breaks a lot of rules in all the right ways. This ending captivates me to no end that I have attempted to homage and replicate in many of my own scripts.
Karthryn Bigelow did not have any real box office success prior to this film, despite turning out some quite good films such as Near Dark and Blue Steel. With Point Break, she really came into fruition with a greatly exciting, fresh, and original summer action picture that really delivered. She shows a great visual style here that pinpoints emotion greatly and really envelopes you into every fiber of this film. Possibly less than half of Bigelow’s movies in her thirty year career have actually been box office successes, and that’s a horrible shame. I think she is an incredible director who showed a great deal of potential here, which she would capitalize upon in with stunning results in Strange Days. Her collaboration on both pictures with now ex-husband James Cameron really shows through in all the best ways. Point Break shares some common ground with Cameron’s work, and even he draws some parallels between the endings of this movie and Terminator 2. Regardless, I will take no credit away from Bigelow who gave us this excellent pure adrenalin rush of a movie which has not been replicated since. I think it goes without saying that I recommend this movie with great passion.