I don’t know exactly what to call what I felt while I was watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991). Amazement? Incredulity? Disbelief? All I know is that I wasn’t bored. This is a movie built on a premise so flimsy, supported by performances so bizarre, withdialogue so strange that at times I felt like I was watching some sort of Bressonian joke. I didn’t totally get it, but I wanted to see more.
The movie tells of the free-spirited surfing junkies that fund their trips searching for the perfect wave by robbing banks and the former football star FBI agent who’s on their trail. We have Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), the philosopher of the ocean (his name is taken from the name of a tree under which Buddhists believe they find consciousness), who surfs and leads a band of other adrenaline-seekers in knocking over financial institutions. We have Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), late of a football scholarship at Ohio State University, who’s now a crack agent in the bureau. He’s assigned to the LA branch, which is bedeviled by Bodhi’s gang, the Ex-Presidents (they wear the masks of Reagan, Nixon, Carter and LBJ), which has been robbing banks at a clip of ten a year for the last three years without the law getting as much as a sniff.
“They’re the best I’ve ever seen,” says Utah’s crackpot partner, Pappas (Gary Busey), who has a theory about the gang that the rest of the agents snicker at. Pappas believes the Ex-Presidents are surfers. He bases this theory mainly on their tan lines and how their schedule of robberies all occur in the fall and winter, presumably to finance surfing trips in the summer. The gang robs the banks but they don’t mess around with the time-consuming vaults, taking only the money that’s on hand, just enough to chase waves. If they wanted to make a little bit of money and have their summers off, they could have tried teaching, but I guess that didn’t occur to them.
Utah buys into the idea and learns how to surf from a pretty beach bum named Tyler (Lori Petty), who just happens to be a former flame of Bodhi. As Utah infiltrates the surf world, he is quickly seduced by Bodhi’s free-wheeling philosophy and slowly, very slowly, discovers that these four surfers might just be the four bank robbers he’s after. In a botched bust, Bodhi is made aware that Utah is an agent, and the rest of the movie is spent with the two of them drifting toward each other in a dangerous dance in which Bodhi and the Ex-Presidents quickly unravel and Tyler, whom Utah has fallen for, is put in danger.
I can express only muted enthusiasm for the movie, which, the way it’s written and made, should have quickly disappeared from the public’s imagination. The bank–robbers–as–thrill–seekers angle is interesting, but it feels shoehorned and the desperate violence of some of the Ex-Presidents doesn’t mix with Bodhi’s easygoing pacifism. But in a genre, the action movie, that is often about, at best, one thing, it was refreshing to see one with multiple interests even if they cohabitate uneasily.
Further endearing me to this strange little movie are the almost universal over-the-top performances. This is very jarring at first, as it plays with what we think movie acting should be. It’s like watching American Psycho (2000), in which Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale, acts like an exaggerated type from a commercial, except everyone in Point Break is like that. Busey is a vision of manic enthusiasm; he shares a scene during a stakeout with Utah in which he animatedly tells his partner to get him two meatball subs from a nearby stand approximately 30 times, just to watch the young man exit the car before Busey bangs on the top of the vehicle and calls out, in glorious superflousity, “Utah! Gimme two!”
Swayze carries himself as a man who can see through his own schtick even if his disciples can’t. In my mind he drew comparisons to none other than Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master (2012); perhaps it is Point Break’s polar opposite but one that had a similar performance at the center with a number of layers, intentional or not.
For Reeves’ performance I’ll offer an anecdote. In Los Angeles a number of years ago, a small Hollywood theater was gaining popularity with a live stage version of Point Break (the show has since gone on to Vegas and New York and a couple of other places). At the urging of some friends we went and saw it one night. The show lampooned the overblown acting and generated laughs with cheesy and purposefully artificial special effects. To play Johnny Utah, the show selected a member of the audience (not a bad gamble in Los Angeles, where most of the theatergoers might have some acting experience), the point being that Reeves’ performance in the movie was so wooden and empty-headed that an actor who didn’t know the lines or hadn’t rehearsed (or wasn’t even familiar with the plot of the movie, as was the case when I was selected to play him) would be able to do just as well. The audience knowingly roared.
It’s these things that make Point Break memorable. It has some competent action scenes, especially a well-paced and set-up bust on some dangerous suspects that shows off some of the suspense-inducing prowess Bigelow would display in her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2009), and the surf photography is rather good but it’s best attribute is its strangeness. This is a movie about bank-robbing surfers, and it has whatever the right feel for that is. It’s as if all involved saw the writing on the wall with the script and said, “Look, guys, this is never going to be a great movie; it’s absurd already—let’s go with it.” They rode the wave and I did too.