Point Break

(USA/Japan - 1991)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey, Lori Petty, John C. McGinley, James LeGros
Genre: Action/Adventure/Crime
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: W. Peter Iliff & Rich King
Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Composer: Mark Isham

Is it possible that the most masculine director currently working is actually a female? Kathryn Bigelow's macho films are all about the adrenaline rush. They are action films of the most energetic sort with reckless heroes and villains. Her visceral scenes put us in the moment, allowing the audience to experience the high rather than view it in a detached manner, as spectacle. A painter in her pre directing days and heavily influenced by Sam Peckinpah, whose masterpiece The Wild Bunch was one of the defining moments of her cinema viewing life, Bigelow presents the realistic as possible action scenes as a series of heavily edited picturesque slow-motion sequences shot with hand-held cameras to provide a kinetic energy and frentic pace to the proceedings.

On one hand, Bigelow gives voice to those who get their high through danger, on the other, she's examining its seductive and destructive nature. Because the cinematography is so good you can almost feel the sensation, the characters exuberance and enthusiasm for taking life beyond its limits is so palpable we can understand the risks, even the ultimate risk of dying, if necessary, for what you love. It's a guilty pleasure movie because it's a guilty pleasure life.

Bigelow understands and conveys the mystique of whatever form of danger she fixes our gaze on. Working best within a group dynamic, she infuses a new member into the established subculture to examine the individual vs. collective psyche, for instance the unwilling new vampire Caleb in the underrated vampire film Near Dark opposing their tactics or the reckless thrill driven bomb squad cowboy SFC William James in The Hurt Locker taking risks way in excess of those the bold but more survival oriented soldiers would prefer. Point Break follows Bigelow's previous film, Blue Steel, in dealing with a new law enforcer, but reverses the story as in Blue Steel the criminal Eugene Hunt is undercover posing as cop Megan Turner's new boyfriend as a means of killing more people without taking the blame, while in Point Break we have the traditional undercover FBI agent infiltrating the group of surfers because they are believed to also be bankrobbers.

Story wise, Point Break seems the usual thin, unbelievable, and routine genre exercise (the baddies must be surfers because they only rob banks during the summer), but beyond thrilling us with numerous stunningly presented action scenes, these scenes aren't merely throwaway entertainment, they render the film much more effective in a cumulative sense. Due to spending little time on plot and a lot of time showing the activities of the people involved including surfing, football, fighting, and skydiving are all about the rush, we get a collective profile of not just one subculture, but an action seeking personality. In the end, the good guys and the bad guys could be interchangeable, as people of the same mentality are drawn to the thrills of either law enforcement or law breaking.

Gary Busey is particularly good as the veteran FBI agent Pappas, humorously delivering lines such as “Last time you had a feeling I had to kill a guy. Now I hate that... it looks bad on my report” and always coming up with funny angles to make his undercover work less conspicuous, such as searching for his lost dog Scooby. James LeGros does a great Nixon impersonation, but overall the downfall of Point Break is the acting, particularly the wrongheaded decision of giving the lead to Keanu Reeves. So wooden he creaks, Keanu spends the film reading his lines as if seeing them for the first time. You know things are bad when Patrick Swayze actually seems really good in comparison to well, anyone who ever acted, but Keanu is so beyond awful here that the gimmick of what claims to be the longest running theater show in Los Angeles, Point Break LIVE!, is randomly selecting an audience member to play Keanu's role of Johnny Utah, of course reading their entire corny script off cue-cards!

I was not a fan of Point Break when it first came out. I enjoyed the humor of the bank robbers dressing up as recent ex-presidents, delivering some classic lines such as “We've been screwing you for years, so a few more seconds shouldn't matter, now should it?” and “Just implementing our own personal plan of deregulation” (as Nixon pockets money), but it mainly stood out for the campiness brought about by Reeves dreadful performance and several holes in the logic, such as the leader announcing to his crew they are breaking into the vault mid robbery after 30 perfectly planned and executed heists where they were in and out in 90 seconds because they didn't waste time trying to take the bank for all it was worth. As time goes by though, I find it impossible to not enjoy a film where Keanu gets his ass kicked by a topless chick who just got out of the shower.

Point Break's elevated status has a lot to do with my appreciation for the action sequences overwhelming the typical campy and corny aspects of the endeavor. The mentality of how to do action has just changed so much toward the obviously phony. These days, every film has this or that chase, but they all come off flat because they are merely to be observed. Comparing current action films to Point Break is akin to the difference between watching fireworks on TV and lighting them yourself; there's just no sense of being in the moment, no intensity or danger because you can't believe the backgrounds or the explosions or that any of the combat is more than sped up forms. Point Break may be goofy, but from a visual standpoint, there's really nothing that feels false. I mean, occasionally we can tell a stunt man was used, but the settings are genuine, and that lends such an authenticity to the film because it's really the characters interaction with the settings that provides the tension and intensity.

For me, what makes The Hurt Locker so good is that Bigelow has remained about figuring out how to stunningly film something realistic. Just compare the explosions in that film to those in anything you see from Hollywood. The whole texture is different. They can be believed, so I can begin to lose myself in the moment, to care, to worry, to have actual human emotions rather than just wishing I was playing a video game because that's a lot more fun than just watching someone else's demo.


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