There is a lot more to Point Break than meets the eye. At first glance, you’ve got yourself a surprisingly solid action movie, albeit a ridiculous one. The plot is goofy. The script is goofier. But take a closer look, take even a few closer looks, and slowly but surely this film reveals itself as the juggernaut that it is. Director Kathryn Bigelow would famously go on to be the first female winner of the Academy Award for Best Director (for The Hurt Locker) and while that film is incomparable with this one for obvious reasons, Point Break is shot with a whole lot more flare than you would expect of a surfing-centric action movie from 1991. That being said, able as Bigelow’s directing hand is, I can’t fight the feeling that had Ed Wood or Michael Bay or, hell, even Joel Schumacher (pick your godawful director of choice, okay?) helmed Point Break, the sheer combined cult of personality and star power of Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, and Gary Busey would have guaranteed similar success. It was a perfect storm, the likes of which hadn’t been since before, and haven’t been seen since.
Consider Keanu Charles Reeves, back from 1989’s Excellent Adventure and ready to take his acting career more seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Reeves spent some time in Los Angeles shadowing real FBI agents and practicing with real UCLA football players to prepare for his role (naturally) as an ex-quarterback “F! B! I! Agent!” He would, of course, go on to become a big action hero -- in little films like Speed and the Matrix, maybe you’ve heard of them? But everything that made Keanu Reeves “Keanu Reeves” is present here: the good looks, the hypnotically wooden acting, the bro-dude demeanor. As director Bernardo Bertollucionce put it, “He has a beauty that’s not Eastern or Western.1” Truer words have never been spoken. The role even won him the title of “Most Desirable Male” in the 1992 MTV Movie Awards.
Consider Patrick Wayne Swayze, back from playing against type as a sensitive loverman in 1990’s Ghost and ready to get back to his tough guy roots. In 1991, he was at the peak of his powers -- People Magazine named him Sexiest Man Alive within weeks of the film’s release. And rightfully so: the never-not-handsome Swayze has never looked better than he did in Point Break, catching ultimate waves and jumping out of airplanes. He did all his own stunts, too -- in fact, legend has it that for Point Break’s skydiving scenes he had to jump out of a real live plane in the real live sky fifty-five times! In the philosophical, adrenaline-addicted Bodhi, Swayze found a role he could inject with the utmost, for lack of a better word, Swayze-ness, and so he did.
Now, Reeves and Swayze had combined forces before, in 1986’s hockey film Youngblood, so Point Break would not set a new star-power standard with just the two of them. No, there had to be an x-factor, and in 1991, what better x-factor was there than William Gary Busey? Busey had made a name for himself as maniacal villain Mr. Joshua in the first Lethal Weapon film and a reputation as a hard-living, real-life maniac after a brain-damaging 1988 motorcycle accident. As Angelo Pappas, Johnny Utah’s meatball sandwich-eating, wisecracking Vietnam vet partner in crime-busting, Busey kills, continuing his perfect run of crazed characters that would last through much of the nineties.
All joking aside, here we have three formidable stars of eighties and nineties popular Hollywood. Each has run the gamut from phenomenon to punchline, but there’s no denying their particular and peculiar magnetisms. They’re talented, in spite of (or due to) their idiosyncrasies. But for some reason, the temptation, one to which I’ve submitted a bit here, is to make fun of them, and to make fun of a film like Point Break. That’s fine, but the fact of the matter is that Point Break truly is an enjoyable film on a genuine level. Action movies are ridiculous by nature, sure, and while the presence of Reeves, Swayze, and Busey doesn’t, shall we say, temper the ridiculous nature of this film, the fact that it is what it is -- a straight-faced, philosophically bent movie about an ex-star football player turned FBI agent has to go undercover as a surfer -- and it’s watchable, is amazing! Roger Ebert (astutely, as usual) called it “surprisingly effective2”!
Given the surprisingly high quality of Point Break, I take back what I said earlier -- I don’t think that anyone else could have or should have directed this film. It may not be Kathryn Bigelow’s most artistic film, but how could it be? Not to mention her talented rendering of the mesmerizing action sequences, making a film with this plot unironically watchable3 is, as far as I’m concerned, one of cinema’s great triumphs. If even one member of cast or crew were different, it could have been a disaster. Somehow things just worked out perfectly.
If the reader hasn’t watched it yet, or hasn’t watched it for awhile, do yourself a favor and press play without prejudice. Between the surfing and the skydiving and the president-masked bank robbing, it’s a whole lot of fun to watch. Movies just don’t get much more entertaining. As Johnny Utah said to Bodhi in that fateful final scene, “Vaya con Dios.” You might be pleasantly surprised.
3 Of course, you can watch it ironically if that’s more your cup of tea -- there have been quite a few affectionate lampoons of the film, foremost among them Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz and a production called Point Break Live! in which the part of Johnny Utah is cast from the audience at the beginning of each show. I’m sure it would also fare well as a drinking game movie.