Looking back at Point Break

Director Kathryn Bigelow married serene surfing and brutal action in the 1991 classic, Point Break. Duncan takes an affectionate look back...

If you want the ultimate, you’ve gotta be willing to pay the ultimate price. It’s not tragic to die doing what you love.” – Bodhi

1990 was the year I turned fifteen. Even back then I was cinephile. So, that particular year was a landmark for me, as I suspect it was for many others like myself, living in the UK at the time, who were finally granted access to the next level of cinema.

In a pre-Internet age it was an incredibly big deal and one that meant I no longer had to pretend to act like an assured, confident and mature patron of my cinema just to watch a film I was excited about, something that, since I turned eighteen, I’ve never done again.

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Having been raised to appreciate movies on their own merits, rather than as a risqué chance to see something labelled with an age certificate greater than my own, it drove me to distraction for years that the films I most wanted to see, I wasn’t legally allowed until the VHS home release.

This problem proved even harder for someone raised on the heady mix of action, horror and sci-fi, who already counted Aliens, Robocop, Terminator and the films of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme as his favourites (and still does). So, when Point Break made its way to the cinema with a 15-certificate in 1991, I was overjoyed.

Ironically, it turns out that Point Break was actually cut to get its 15-certificate at the cinema in the UK, which would have utterly conflicted my poor, anti-BBFC teenage brain, if it had known at the time. But such is life. I was more grateful that there was finally an action movie that appealed to my group of female friends/girlfriend, especially as 91 was the year that saw them drag me back endlessly to see Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, eventually draining any enthusiasm I had for it, for over a decade. Plus, they showed no real enthusiasm for my Terminator 2 frothing.

The casting in Point Break was incredibly clever in its appeal to both sexes. Patrick Swayze was at the top of his game, having acquired a firm following from action fans in previous years, solidified in 1989 with the release of both Next Of Kin and the stupendously awesome Road House. (There’s actually a throwaway line in Point Break about having “lunch at Patrick’s Road House”.) While Dirty Dancing and Ghost had deftly shown his adeptness for breaking hearts, as well as heads.

Swayze was known for his intensity and commitment to any role, also possessing the charisma and acting ability that set him apart from many of his peers at the time. During the filming of Ghost, director, Jerry Zucker, had to persuade Swayze that genuinely having a tear-filled breakdown over the memory of his father was actually too intense and too real for the film.

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In Point Break, Swayze is the epitome of unattainable cool. As Bodhi, the enigmatic leader of a surf gang, he commands the lives of those around him and is utterly convincing as a man capable of derailing even the sternest and straightest of human beings, adding credibility to every aspect of the film’s conflicts. On top of that, he’s also damn fine at kicking ass.

I have to confess that my recent re-watching of the film and, indeed, writing this article, actually made me feel quite sad about his tragic death in 2009. I’m just glad that his memory will always be kept very much alive in the many great films he appeared in.

Alongside the great Swayze is an incredibly fresh faced Keanu Reeves, perfectly chosen as F.B.I agent, Johnny Utah, a fine cinematic name if ever there was one. Reeves, at that time, was mostly known for playing lovable dudes in both Parenthood and, of course, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But Point Break really launched his career and, as it did in a very similar way for Ben Affleck, cut him into an action hero who was part straight edge arrogance and part slick charm.

As I remember, it was also the role that made him an instant sex symbol, with the still image of him in the rain adorning every magazine and review at the time, as well as the film’s poster.

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Reeves fits the action well (and, no doubt, set him on the course that would eventually result in The Matrix many years later), despite the constant knocks his acting has received over the years, as he relishes the more dramatic moments, while being equally convincing as both “young, dumb, full of cum” F.B.I. agent and surfer dude, any stiffness merely adding to his on screen persona.

The real joy in his performance as Utah, though, comes in his character’s more enthusiastic moments, when the bubbly traits of Ted Theodore Logan start to shine through slightly. I, for one, would welcome Reeves’ return to the world of Bill & Ted, as he’s never had a role since that I’ve loved him in as much.

Point Break also gave Lori Petty her career break as Tyler, a much stronger, more fleshed out, female supporting role than is normally allowed in such a male-dominated action film. Certainly Tyler is still the film’s perfunctory love interest, but her more masculine qualities and dominance over Utah’s almost androgynous charms balance the film in an unusual way, particularly from an aesthetic point of view.

It’s a shame that Petty’s following strong performances in A League Of Their Own and geek oddity, Tank Girl (a film I haven’t seen since the cinema and must really re-watch) didn’t secure a continued Hollywood climb for her career, but I’m not surprised, when more conventional actors still fail.

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Speaking of unconventional, the ever prolific legend that is Gary Busey turns in another great performance as Reeves’ jaded partner, Pappas, adding some much needed humour to the film, while sparking nicely off John C. McGinley, who’s in full shouty bastard mode, as their boss.

It’s strange how much retro-sympathy McGinley’s Dr. Cox has bought him. In Point Break, he’s just playing the uptight suit, whom the audience is meant to hate from the outset. Yet, watching him scream at Reeves and Busey is a lot more comical and enjoyable since Scrubs came along.

Even The Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman, Anthony Kiedis, pops up for a great one line role, as does Bigelow regular, Tom Sizemore, in an uncredited cameo.

By far, though, the film’s greatest asset is director, Kathryn Bigelow, who combines the stellar cast with beautiful cinematography by Donald Peterman, a haunting score by Mark Isham, and eminently quotable dialogue, with some of the most superbly shot and influential action scenes of all time.

When Bigelow was awarded her Oscar in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, I couldn’t help but feel it was about time that Hollywood gave her some much deserved recognition, especially after her struggle to get the film made.

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Having grown up with her films, it still amazes me that, even though she dispelled any myth that women weren’t just as capable as men of directing films, in any genre, decades ago, that she still stands in an utter minority. The fact it was only last year that Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win both an Oscar and BAFTA for Best Director seems astounding to me. Either way, I can thoroughly recommend Near Dark, Blue Steel and K-19: The Widowmaker (Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Casting doesn’t get much better), while Strange Days is a film I really need to revisit myself.

Incidentally, in our forthcoming interview with Michael Biehn, he informed us that Bigelow, who had purloined most of James Cameron’s Aliens cast for Near Dark, approached Biehn for roles multiple times in her films, including that of Bodhi in Point Break.

When watching Point Break now, it’s difficult to divorce it from the influence it’s had on numerous films since, from The Fast And The Furious lifting the entire concept (dropping it in the process), Hot Fuzz‘saffectionate referencing, or the on-foot pursuit through gardens and houses that has been stolen multiple times, though rarely with the use of a flying dog.

Yet, Point Break packs more of a punch than most action films, proving to be far more bloody, brutal and ballsy than most, while being interspersed with the sublime and tranquil beauty of surfing. To quote from the film, “Peace though superior firepower.”

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