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‘Point Break’ Is the Silliest Classic Ever Made

Only the combination of Kathryn Bigelow, Keanu Reeves, and Patrick Swayze could produce something as equally absurd, profound, and well made as this 1991 movie

20th Century/Ringer illustration

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

In times such as these, the question of what it means to feel alive has a way of cropping up. Locked up at home, seeing no one, going nowhere, thinking a lot more than usual about our premature or eventual end and the role we could have in that of other people—we are focusing on survival rather than on living. Many are determined to get back to “normal,” and some are already willing to attempt a restaurant outing or a day at the beach, whatever the potential risks. But are we really solely defined by the way we spend our money, the cities we take selfies in, the meals and the clothes we can afford? Is that what being alive is all about?

In Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 classic Point Break, a group of devoted surfers don’t simply refuse to take note of the “Beach Closed” signs—they seek them out, robbing Los Angeles banks to fund their daredevil world tour. Their motivations, however, seem loftier than financial freedom: Money is great, but have you ever, to quote one of these beach boys, had “sex with gods”? The surfers are looking to feel the ultimate rush. The goal isn’t to go on holiday, but to make every day holy—a communion with nature, detached from a capitalist system.

Yet Point Break lingers not primarily because of its antiestablishment sentiment. As spiritual as the surfers it portrays are, Point Break remains, at the same time, a deeply silly movie. The very concept of bank-robbing surfer dudes is as ridiculous on paper as it is on the screen; it came from producer Rick King, who, while sitting on a beach, remembered an article he’d read about Los Angeles being the bank robbery capital of the USA. The agents chasing these surfing criminals are some of the most incompetent policemen in the history of American cinema. The man who somehow manages to learn to surf in a few weeks to infiltrate the robbers’ crew has the improbable and unforgettable name of Johnny Utah. (He also happens to be a former Rose Bowl–winning quarterback … obviously.) Both Johnny and Keanu Reeves, the actor who plays him, are astonishing in their choices. In a word, there’s a lot to love and to laugh at in Point Break. But all these apparent filmmaking faux pas are in line with the film’s guiding principle: To really feel alive, one must let go of and transcend all rules and conventions.

The idea of cinematic realism seems simple, but as filmmakers have sought to make their movies as pure as possible over the years, this striving has turned into an accepted collection of stylistic rules that a director or screenwriter must follow to achieve believability. Realism has been codified. Point Break, on the other hand, plays fast and loose with these rules and places itself outside of this tradition—paradoxically achieving another kind of rawness. This begins at the script level: Utah and his older partner Pappas (the precious Gary Busey) repeatedly decide to pursue armed criminals alone, without backup; they miss the robbers’ takeover of a bank because Pappas wanted not one, but two meatball sandwiches; all their nonsensical decisions make them more affecting and, dare I say, more human and believable.

Witnessing Reeves’s performance is its own transcendental experience. Although Utah is an extremely high-strung, stuck-up young guy, this cannot fully account for Reeves’s often stilted and self-conscious acting. His affected line deliveries make evident the film’s artificiality—not to ruin it, but simply to amuse us; to enjoy this performance, the viewer has to embrace its strangeness. Ultimately, to those open to it, the effect is one of astonishment, hilarity, and awe. In his scenes with Utah’s love interest, Tyler (Lori Petty), Reeves is, however, more comfortable, perhaps because he was more used to playing romantic parts at the time. Yet in these interactions—thanks to Bigelow’s sense for real, more pragmatic romance—the characters’ budding love is not syrupy and movie-like, but just awkward and funny enough. The energetic Petty’s “Who cares!” after Utah concludes their meet-cute by shouting his name is a breath of fresh air.

The most transgressive of all Point Break characters is, naturally, its main surfer-robber. Bodhi, played by a deeply committed Patrick Swayze, doesn’t as much defy gravity in his surfing and skydiving, but rather rejects simple binaries—between up and down, man and Earth, friend and foe, life and death. “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,” he explains to his teammates. The goal is to continuously transcend the limits of society, of the human body, of life as we know it. “If you want the ultimate, you’ve got to be willing to pay the ultimate price. It’s not tragic to die doing what you love.” And so, to him armed bank robbery is rational: attacking the system in order to pursue enlightenment. When he discovers that Utah is an FBI agent, his reaction is first to offer him the most life-affirming experience he can think of: a sky-diving trip, during which all of Bodhi’s guys and Utah hold hands, united in their fall and feeling of weightlessness. Bodhi is not the usual movie villain, even if he also arranges to have Tyler be taken hostage, a reveal that shows his embracing of life and death as two sides of the same coin has turned dangerous. His name is a truncated version of the Sanskrit word bodhisattva, which refers to a being that is enlightened and on its way to becoming a Buddha. If Bodhi’s ideals seem ridiculous, the viewer is also made to reflect on that judgment. Has society made us too critical of those who try to be free? And have movies, originally meant to help our liberation through artistic expression, actually done the same?

Bigelow’s directing heightens these grand ideals and this rule-breaking to striking levels. She helps the audience let themselves be carried by the waves. Her slow-motion photography of surfers against the sun, their bodies glistening and their faces ecstatic, makes us feel as though we were ourselves on the board. On land, too, she knows how to film these athletic people with both respect and fascination: In the beach football scene, we are allowed to simply take in all that visual pleasure, as though casually people-watching from under our sun umbrellas. Like Bodhi, Bigelow also bridges the divide between man and the elements: The waves are majestic, charging beasts that humans don’t control but respectfully follow, and the endless sky seems to carry the divers along. A special system of individual cranes for each actor and for the cameraperson was created to shoot the sky-diving scene from only a few meters up, thus letting the actors feel safe and comfortable enough to evoke this complete abandon to nature. The inclusion in the film of one of Swayze’s real jumps off the plane reinforces the effect even further: The risk was real, but so was the invigorating sensation.

Since Point Break is a film of extremes, it allows much space for humor—laughing is, after all, always a rebuke in the face of our finitude and inconsequence, a lapse in our memory where we are in the present and not concerned with the future. It would be a shame to ignore Point Break’s comedic value in favor of its spiritual message—rather, the two go together. Much of the exhilarating thrill of the film comes from its brazen desire to be entertaining and ridiculous. In the opening sequence, cross-edited with beautiful footage of surfers on waves, Utah is shown breaking his speed record at the gun range, under pouring rain and in a T-shirt that reveals his sculpted body. He turns around, thumbs up and smiles like a kid: The tone is set.

This is no self-serious macho cop movie. Sillier still is the fact that one key piece of evidence that makes Pappas suspect the surfers is the tan line above the naked butt of a robber captured by CCTV. Bigelow lets Utah, Pappas, and Bodhi be both somewhat stereotypically masculine and still regular humans, with their quirks, their jokes, and their flaws. It’s impossible to speculate on what the film would have looked like had it been directed by a man—perhaps by Bigelow’s cowriter and then-husband, James Cameron—but it seems fair to say, taking into account Bigelow’s following films, that her eye for the sensitivity of tough men is the key to Point Break’s mix of joyousness and profundity.

The relationship between Utah and Bodhi is allowed to flourish in ways unusual and refreshing for Hollywood. Bigelow’s sense of humor frees them from the narrative conventions that would have required them to be simply sworn enemies. Instead, as they fight off Nazi surfers (why not?) with their bare hands together, they become close friends; surfing side by side only brings them closer, in a bromance for the ages where Bodhi takes on the role of guru for his young protégé. When things turn sour between the bank robber and the cop, the connection gets more tense: Bodhi’s statement “You want me so bad, it’s like acid in your mouth” is worthy of a Bond villain, but in Bigelow’s camera, it is both funnier and more meaningful. Their love is as romantic as the one that Utah feels for Tyler, if not more. Here, too, traditional distinctions are relaxed: All kinds of affections are placed on the same level. The fact that Tyler herself kind of looks like Utah, with her short black hair, also hints at this understanding of people as people, not strictly defined by gender norms; Bigelow’s light touch makes divides disappear and connections freer and funnier. (By contrast, the naked women in the raid scene are cleary objectified and discarded by the Nazi surfers.)

Perhaps, in the end, being alive means going with the flow, freeing ourselves from arbitrary barriers, and seeking pleasure in the fleeting moments when the wave seems to envelop us in its tube, or when a joke or a weird and intense performance makes us laugh. It’s about keeping the human spirit alive, not by robbing banks, but by watching characters jump off planes and have conversations mid-air, as though they could hear themselves. As FBI Director Ben Harp (the ever-intense John C. McGinley) tells Utah: “You know nothing. In fact, you know less than nothing. If you even knew that you knew nothing, that would be something, but you don’t.” Thankfully, Point Break shows us that we know nothing of what a movie can be.