I bitch about the cinematic affectations of the early ’90s a lot, so when I get a chance to extol the virtues of a movie from that period, I take it. Point Break, directed by Kathryn Bigelow: Kick-Ass Directoro, is up there with the original Lethal Weapon for best cop buddy action movie. Before Keanu Reeves lost the ability to express emotion, before Gary Busey began talking to pigeons, and before Patrick Swayze wore drag, they came together in this near-paragon of action movies, where a young FBI agent has to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers who never make mistakes, and wear masks of Carter, Reagan, Nixon and LBJ. And they’re surfers.
So we get North Shore meets Heat, in a way. Johnny Utah- his real name, not a moniker for being some “young, dumb and full of cum” rookie from the Midwest joining the big leagues in L.A.- was a Rose Bowl quarterback who busted his knee, and joined the Feds. John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox from “Scrubs”) is his boss who pegs him with the “young dumb” tag and it fits, because it’s Keanu Reeves. It’s a part he was born to play, and he gets to be a smart-ass throughout. He gets partnered with Pappas, the grizzled old agent who no one believes, because he has a crazy theory that the Ex-Presidents are surfers, and he’s Gary Busey. Would you believe Gary Busey? I wouldn’t.
But Keanu Reeves is just dumb enough to believe him, and we believe it, because he’s Keanu Reeves. He learns to surf, with the help of Lori Petty (Tank Girl) and a few montages. Lori Petty plays Tyler, an athletic surfer who shows him the ropes. In the end, she plays the damsel in distress, but she brings a lot of life and a dash of reality to this story of monolithic men. She introduces Utah to her ex, Bodhi (Swayze), a Zen surfer warrior who seeks the perfect wave, and the greatest thrill. Johnny gets his respect after whooping him in a game of beach football, and it slowly becomes clear that Utah’s new mentor just may be the ringleader of the ex-Presidents. Hmm…. could be!
The plot diverts attention to a bunch of white power douchebags and it’s believable enough. Swayze playsthe part of Bodhi with such energy and charisma that like Utah, we don’t want him to be a crook. We want to skydive with him, even when he might know we’re a cop. There is a sense of honor among them, which is what brought the comparison to Michael Mann’s Heat. The men respect each other, and after they know they are born enemies, they can’t shoot each other in the back. It’s like The Fox & the Hound in that respect, except you won’t cry. The scene was famously eulogized in Hot Fuzz, when Johnny Utah fires into the air in anger because he can’t shoot his friend. And as ridiculous as it looks, it works, in context.
The movie ends perfectly, with justice served but in a way that satisfies the story and its larger than life characters. Point Break works is an action thriller that plays to the formula of its genre, but transcends it, bringing the Zen mindset of the surfer to it. The FBI agent has to get his man, but he doesn’t have to let him die in a prison cell. It may not be as stylish as Mann’s thriller, but Bigelow paints her own canvas on the California shore with broad strokes, keeping us as exhilarated as if we were riding that perfect wave.
© 2010 Thomas Pluck.