14th September 2017 marked eight years since the untimely passing of Patrick Swayze, and what better way to remember him than by taking a look back at one of his greatest movies, the action masterpiece that is Point Break.
Released in 1991, Point Break was the fourth movie from Kathryn Bigelow, who already had cult vampire favourite Near Dark under her belt, and would go on to Oscar glory with The Hurt Locker. The furious direction and Swayze/Reeves axis ensured Point Break‘s place as one of the best in the genre. It represented Keanu Reeves’ first foray into action cinema, a genre where he would come to make himself at home with popular turns in Speed, The Matrix trilogy and John Wick. But, at the time, he was something of a wild card as an action star. Swayze already had form in the genre, forging an enjoyable post-Dirty Dancing action niche for himself by way of Roadhouse, Steel Dawn and Next of Kin.
Reeves’ magnificently named hero, Johnny Utah, begins his first day at the FBI with his new partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey). Together they are tasked with solving a series of bank robberies by a professional gang known as the Ex Presidents. They hit banks quickly, dressed as Reagan, Carter, LBJ and Nixon. Pappas has a theory that the bank robbers are surfers, chasing waves around the world. Utah goes undercover to surveil the beaches and infiltrate the gang. He meets local surfer Tyler (Lori Petty) and forms a fast friendship with surf legend Bodhi (Swayze). As the friendship grows, Utah learns Bodhi is responsible for the robberies.
Point Break hits a number of genre clichÃ©s and stereotypes head on ““ from the cop partnership with an old seen-it-all-before agent and a young, enthusiastic rookie, right through to the unnecessarily aggressive chief who doesn’t like the way the pair operate. But Point Break takes these action movie staples and perfects them. It arguably does them better than any movie has done before or since and never once feels predictable or tired. In fact, tiredness is not an option for any aspect of Point Break. It’s a celluloid representation of a pulsing adrenal gland. Don’t overthink it, just sit back and enjoy the kinetic orgy of stunts and action.
Although the action sequences are outstanding, if Point Break were just stunts it would never have achieved such longevity. The key to Point Break‘s appeal is in both the acting and the characters; for an action movie, they are surprisingly complex. Bodhi and Utah are the same kind of person, only on different sides of the law, fostering a bizarrely competitive-yet-loving friendship that endures the pressures of their professional lives (FBI pursuit, enforced bank robbery, gunfights). Even when they are at fundamental odds with each other, they can’t hide their mutual respect.
Swayze is perfect as Bodhi, a bi-polar mixture of zen master and competitive asshole. He abhors violence, yet has no qualms wielding it or delegating it. His actions contradict the wisdom he expounds, particularly when it serves his own ends. But Swayze delivers his pseudo mysticism and impassioned philosophy against people driving to work “in their metal coffins” with such overwhelming charisma you almost want to quit your own job and go pick up a surfboard.
On the surface, Utah is your typical clean cut, athletic golden boy. But he too stops at nothing to achieve his ultimate goal. In order to catch the bad guys he has no hesitation in preying on Tyler’s weakness – and this is before he even has a proper suspect for the robberies. Utah turns to deception JUST TO GET SURFING LESSONS! Reeves, too, is perfect for the role. Despite Utah’s questionable thought process, he’s so earnest it’s impossible not to think he’s in this for the right reasons. Reeves approaches Utah like a sort of gritty version of Ted from Bill & Ted, and so every time he opens his mouth he is a fountain of quotable dialogue: “I.am.an.F.B.I.agent.”
Of the rest of the cast, Busey restrains himself as Pappas and is all the better for it. Although, considering he has about as much impulse control as Utah, one might be inclined to question the FBI’s mentor-matching process. John C. McGinley essays another memorable character in FBI Director Harp, the ultimate in uptight by-the-book police chiefs, with a nifty line in scene-stealing dialogue and abusive hollering. The only female character, Tyler (Lori Petty), is there to pour verbal cold water on Bodhi and Utah’s dick-swinging machismo, but all it ultimately seems to do is egg them on. And Red Hot Chili Peppers fans might also get a kick out of seeing Anthony Kiedis playing a Nazi Surf Gang member and getting a surfboard smacked upside his head by a rampaging Swayze.
Worthy of special mention is the robbery chase. It is a masterpiece. Beginning in the getaway car, shaky backseat camera views put you right in the mix, sitting alongside the Ex Presidents as the FBI give pursuit. It feels lightning fast as cars skid and drift all over the highway, ending at a gas station with a petrol flambÃ©. Utah then goes after Bodhi in an exhilarating foot chase through cramped alleys and suburban back yards. The camera follows as if a participant, and the improvised, desperate nature of the chase makes it feel like a reality cop show. There is a reason Edgar Wright lovingly referenced this sequence in Hot Fuzz: it is THE. ABSOLUTE. BEST.
The logic pedants amongst you might point out that when we meet Director Harp he informs Utah that they catch criminals by number crunching and data analysis. This makes it all the more bizarre when the entire FBI bank robbery unit laughs at Pappas’ surfers theory, which he bases almost completely on number crunching and data analysis (robbery patterns and soil samples). But, Point Break doesn’t care about this stuff, and neither should you. If Point Break has any message to impart at all, then it’s clearly ‘act first, think later’. From Bodhi hitting a bank vault on a whim, to Utah and Pappas ruining an undercover operation because they failed to prepare, the characters are ruled by the id. They act on every impulse they have, and it’s finally epitomised in the boneheaded stupidity of skydiving without a parachute.
And while that all might well sound ridiculous on the page, when it’s up there on the screen it is dynamite. There is almost no accounting for how well everything in this movie comes together. Neither is there a plan for success, nor magical alchemy you can follow to replicate it. Put the same basic ingredients in a blender and what do you get? The Fast and the Furious, and nobody wants that. And talk about longevity, apart from influencing the likes of Edgar Wright and inspiring an unpopular 2015 remake, there was even a parody stage play, Point Break Live!
To be clear, the concept of ‘guilty pleasure’ does not remotely apply here, because there is nothing guilty about it at all. In some respects Point Break is its own metaphor. It is the 50 year storm. It’s a plain and simple case of all the right elements converging together for a once in a lifetime tsunami of action movie perfection. If there’s a better legacy for Swayze to have left behind, or for anyone else involved in the movie for that matter, then it’s hard to imagine what that could be.