Point Break (1991) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
How can an overblown thriller made to the letter with corny 90s pop rhetoric be so thoughtful? Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliantly absurdist macho lyricism in this kinetic 1991 film aptly answers that question. Not much happens in the chaotically implausible plot of Point Break – Bigelow’s fourth feature and her most essential film – but the pleasure is that nothing we see is dull, hence its explicit nonsense is perpetually, breathlessly entertaining. Many negative things can be specified about the glaring deficiencies of this film, among them many inconsistencies, yet it must be emphasized that one of the most competent directors in action thrillers is operating behind the camera doing everything exactly right. Consequently, the so-called deficiencies are either unspecific or very difficult to distinguish, Bigelow trades triviality for gravity, clichés for unpredictability and sterility for fecundity. After directing one of the most sublime landmarks of eighties vampire cinema, the stylistically mutable Near Dark (1987), Bigelow made it crystal clear that her specialty is experimenting with genre cinema. Making radically opposed ideas compatible in a limited domain is tricky, yet she seems to have no problem intermingling the shallow idealisms of genre cinema with a profound cinematic language, and in the end, she consistently achieves refreshing results. Point Break does not have the formal or literary multiplicity of her other works, but the attitude is the same, highly competent filmmaking willing to find a myriad of variants on the conventional. She is a nonconformist filmmaker, just like her most daring characters.
For starters, we could define Point Break in three sections, but not compartmentalized sections, but unified sections coexisting in a multiform narrative. The first would be that of an action movie. The second, that of a heist movie, and last but not least, that of a cop thriller. I must say it is cleverly compact enough to have so many tonal oscillations and still maintain a thrilling narrative reciprocity. Johnny Utah, played by the perennially wooden Keanu Reeves, is a rookie FBI agent who assists seasoned agent Angelo Pappas, played by Gary Busey, in an investigation about the latest rampant bank robberies that have been occurring in the city. The investigative strategy is simple and seemingly effective: Utah infiltrates a gang of wild and dare-devil surfers who he suspects may be the perpetrators of those robberies. The leader of this radically adventurous group is Bodhi, played creditably by the legend himself, Patrick Swayze. Bodhi quickly incorporates Utah into his group, ignoring any danger he might pose to them. His philosophy is to go with the flow and follow the rhythm of the current of the sea and embrace the aggressiveness of the waves. Utah connects with Bodhi’s unconventional lifestyle and develops a fraternal relationship with him; both channel an invigorating energy that seems to be fueled by a utopian quest for freedom of the human spirit through dangerous actions. The adrenaline-filled dramatic scheme of the plot and the hyperbolic scenarios that arise frame these two characters in a didactic friendship, where one learns from the other. From the perspectives of male tradition – ironically directed from the perspective of a female filmmaker – the film expresses a heartfelt respect for male codes, and the virility of its characters commands every action as a ritualistic act that must be followed no matter how absurd the context of the plot may be. Bigelow evades situational realism because she prefers to concentrate her empathy and wit on the chimerical romanticism of the two philosophically antithetical characters who are spiritually concordant.
For two hours of exhilarating cinema, even with its gaudy bits of photographic splendor and idyllic romance, the film doesn’t let up. The uniformity of Point Break is sustained by the audacity of its structure, which never loses its complex sense of constant movement. Bigelow knows how to compose restless sequences remarkably well; she has the religious patience to understand when to speed up the action shot by shot and when to slow it down to dramatize a specific moment. The hectic, grueling, magnificent scene of Utah relentlessly pursuing Bodhi is a masterful exemplification of Bigelow’s keen eye for orchestrating rhythmic desperation and sweaty intensity in a shifting but always assured style. The payoff is one of the most inexplicably inspiring films I’ve ever seen. An ode to masculine intrepidity and the human spirit. For these characters, if they die in the pursuit of the craziest extreme enjoyment, they will have died in peace. Swayze vibrates in the role of Bodhi, Reeves is ridiculous in the role of Utah, but the two of them in the same frame are ecstasy and nirvana making unforgettable a film as elemental as it is transcendental. The waves that Bodhi and his adventurous friends ride are a perfect metaphor for the unpredictability of their lifestyle. And well, danger as a dose of freedom has never been as seductive as it is here and dying doing what you love has never been as literal as it is in Point Break.