Program Notes: Point Break (1991)
When The Hurt Locker came out a couple of years back, many a commentator noted how unusual it was to have a contemporary war film directed by a woman.
Obviously they hadn’t been playing attention to the woman in question.
Virtually from the beginning of her career, Kathryn Bigelow was making movies that had absolutely nothing to do with gender.
Her Near Dark (1987) was a nightmarishly dark vampire yarn that retains its ability to shock (no Twilight-ish romantic swooning for Bigelow) and Blue Steel (1989) was a gritty cop flick that just happened to be about a police woman.
Point Break, though, is the film that put Bigelow on the mass audience’s map. Viewed from a cynical perspective, it’s a crime melodrama fashioned to capitalize on the hunkish qualities of Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves and to deliver a full plate of action thrills. Its characters are one-dimensional, its improbabilities legion, and its outlook nihilistic.
Yet it became a big hit and remains a cult favorite. Ironically, Bigelow was a hired gun on the project, assigned to the project after the stars and the script already were in place. Which no doubt explains why we get some very interesting directorial touches dressing up a largely uninspired premise.
Keanu Reeves plays Johnny Utah (where do they come up with those names?), a fresh young FBI agent assigned to the bank robbery division of the Los Angeles office. With his partner, an old hand named Pappas (Gary Busey, less over the top than usual), Johnny begins investigating the "ex-Presidents," four wildly successful bank robbers who arrive for holdups disguised as Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.
Pappas has a theory that the ex-Presidents are surfers who finance their worldwide search for the perfect wave with stolen cash. And so Johnny goes undercover on the beach.
He soon makes contact with Tyler (Lori Petty), a surf enthusiast who agrees to teach him the art of catching a wave. Through Tyler, Johnny meets Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a sand-and-surf guru who waxes eloquent on the mystic properties of shooting the curl.
Bodhi is hippy-dippy weird, but he's not dumb. He zeroes in on Johnny's penchant for risk-taking and begins delivering a series of adrenalin highs to his young buddy, the most remarkable of which is a stupendous sky-diving sequence.
(That’s actually Patrick Swayze doing the sky-diving...at least in some of the shots. The film company wasn’t about to risk their stars and insisted that stunt doubles be used. But after the completion of filming, Swayze – an avid sky diver – recreated the jumping scene and some of that after-the-fact footage was incorporated into Point Break’s final cut.)
With clockwork precision, Bigelow regularly delivers perspiration-popping action sequences – a bloody raid on a house filled with surf Nazis, a heart-pounding foot chase, several brawls, at least three bank robberies, and two sky-diving episodes.
She's on shakier ground with the characterizations. These are cardboard people. It doesn't occur to either her or Swayze that a ludicrous character like Bodhi could be played for laughs. Instead Swayze intones his dopey philosophy with all the solemnity of a papal installation.
But if you’re looking for thrills, this is the place.
Other films in the series “Surf's Up!”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- June 3: Big Wednesday (1978) Rated PG
- June 10: Point Break (1991) Rated R
- June 17: Soul Surfer (2011) Rated PG
- June 24: Muscle Beach Party (1964) NOt Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.