At first, it’s difficult to tell whether Point Break is a serious crime thriller diminished by moments of stupidity, or a stupid actioner elevated through serious treatment of the material. The film is packed with corny emotional peaks, ridiculous turning points, and overwrought male bonding, but director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter W. Peter Iliff seem to have recognized that this is the stuff that 80s action movies are made of, and sought to explore these themes and forms through their amplification.
Take the plot, for instance. At first the movie seems like it will play out like any number of crime thrillers. Hot FBI rookie Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) wants to make a name for himself by bringing down the infamous bank robbing gang, the Dead Presidents (each member wears the mask of a former president). He decides to—guess what—go undercover and infiltrate the gang, but as he befriends the ringleader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) Utah soon finds himself—you guessed it—in over his head.
Now what if I said that Utah’s infiltrating a gang of surfers? Of course, surfing is a great way to visualize the themes and generate taglines. He’s out too far! He’s in too deep! Can he make it back to shore? But there’s more to the addition of the adrenaline sport than just a way to symbolize going undercover or bring in a popular sport. Surfing is a way to make the action genre’s reliance on excitement and adrenaline an explicit part of the dialogue and storyline.
Swayze’s Bodhi is searching for the ultimate rush. Bank robbing is a way to not only make money during the off-season for his quest, but, in his words, it’s also “about us against the system. That system that kills the human spirit. We stand for something. We are here to show those guys that are inching their way on the freeways in their metal coffins that the human spirit is still alive.” Bodhi is a surfer dude sage, an idealistic warrior on a spiritual journey of sorts. Swayze’s measured yet intense performance grounds the laughable character. This is one of the key Swayze performances, close to but not rivaling Swayze’s Jedi bouncer Dalton in Road House.
I think pretty much anyone will come away from Point Break admiring Swayze’s Bodhi, but what are we to make of Keanu Reeve’s performance, which hovers somewhere between terrible and great? The wooden delivery of his lines in this film rivals his stiffness as Jonathan Harker a year later in Coppola’s Dracula (1992). But in a way, the performance works brilliantly, as it captures the plastic action figure character of the surreally-named Johnny Utah. At the start of the film, Utah’s the all-American FBI rookie, a former college football star, a do-gooder, a go-getter. As he assures his cranky boss (John C. McGinley), he even takes the skin off his chicken.
In spite of Johnny Utah’s standard romance with a surfer girl (Lori Petty), Bodhi and Utah’s relationship is the heart of the film. I think it would be easy to call the film’s treatment of masculinity homoerotic, but I think that description (or that description alone) is too reductive for this film. While there are certainly moments when you expect Keanu to shout at Swayze, “You’re breaking my heart,” I wouldn’t say that latent sexual desire fuels their connection. I think it’s more that Utah wants to be Bodhi. Bodhi is the man that follows his impulses and defies the system. Utah is the lawman that has been disciplined to deny himself, but as the film progresses, Utah becomes more and more like Bodhi. The film uses the two main male characters to embody the dualities of responsibility and desire, and controlling order and creative disorder that thematically govern so many crime and action films.
Kathryn Bigelow is an interesting director. She is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, American female director, yet she has built a career around exploring masculinity and the action genre. (On a side note, it’s interesting that Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron, who are a former married couple, are both filmmakers who have built careers out of approaching action stories as serious dramatic works.) What’s more, her style challenges sexist assumptions that women only make talky or visually ornate films. Images more than dialogue drive her films, and the visuals are often cold and sharp. She’s a dream subject for film academics concerned with gender and genre, and it’s no surprise that Point Break and her other works have a strong presence in the current canons of scholarship.
Point Break (1991, USA/Japan)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; screenplay by W. Peter Iliff; starring Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey, Lori Petty, and John C. McGinley.