Edited July 2016:
In a sane world, Point Break would have been released, forgotten, and then rediscovered and mocked for years on end as an early ’90s curio of archly-’80s action film types hyperbolically peacocking in a most philharmonic register, pushed to near-aneurysm limits of male moodiness no ’80s film ever dared to threaten. It should be terrible, simply put. Like, really really terrible. But then we do not live in a sane world. And Point Break is a pretty terrific barnstorming action monstrosity the likes of which the ’80s proper produced only a handful of times.
Even stranger: why it absolutely should have been horrible and why it is undoubtedly successful are inextricably and forever bound together in a Frankensteinian brew of knuckle-dusting, live-wire, allegro kinesis and full-tilt, pulpy bafflement. Director Kathryn Bigelow was infamously labelled a sell-out, a woman playing in a man’s world and joining the testosterone rat race to achieve success at the cost of her own soul. In reality, she turns the mirror on the rats and lets them bask in their roided-out bodies until they drown in the pungent masculine sweat. This inferno of action is actually a purgatory of caricature, a self-conscious orchestration of action movie types maddened and stirred to the realm of outright nonsensical hysteria. Parody not by distancing itself from the genre’s adolescence but by fulfilling the genre’s wildest, most adolescent fantasies until they puncture themselves with their own self-importance, Point Break is murder by flattery.
Plot synopses are the bane of my existence as a film critic, but this one will be a treat. Sit back and rejoice as we enjoy it together: a college-footballer turned FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) infiltrates a gang of … surfer bros … in hopes of discovering whether they are truly, in fact, the band of merry Presidential prankster-cum-bank robbers they are purported to be. Yes, you heard me: surfer bros. Once undercover, Utah develops an unmistakable connection to the gangs’ leader Bohdi. Yes, his name is Bohdi, and he is played by Patrick Swayze. Yes, this is a movie starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. As the film progresses, the two are deeply torn between friendship and the contractual obligations of their social lives, channeling all the rungs of brooding machismo and solipsistic adolescent inner-rage in the process. Bodhi even insinuates a level of white-bro shamanism that I am most uncomfortable with. Yes, I wish his name was Brody, but everything can’t be a perfect storm. On the plus side, I can make myself feel better by referring to him as Brody throughout the rest of the review. See, for every problem, there is a solution.
Homoeroticism in action cinema is old hat, but Bigelow doesn’t play any games. She slathers the film in a thick-caked, fatalistic male aggression to pitch the implicit homoeroticism at a more scabrous and astringent, and less cheeky level. From the onset of the rather overtly coital opening credits, the film marries its sweltering early ’90s swagger with a stagger of hedonistic self-exploration as she implicitly tethers Johnny and Brody together in a parade of two-shots that stress shifting power dynamics, but also their communalism. By the time the two are sky-diving together and forced to clasp hands in a heated mind game where their lives, egos, and identities, sexual or otherwise, are on the line, Bigelow dissolves the embankment between “text” and “subtext” without an ounce of regret or irony. And this isn’t even mentioning the way Bigelow casually dismisses the main female character in favor of shots of Utah and Brody that bridge the platonic and something much more pulsating, throbbing, and prone to subliminal urges of more bodily camaraderie.
Although a screed about the fallacy of phallic entertainment, Bigelow channels the potency of action filmmaking to comment on itself without ever peering beyond the toolbox of the genre; this isn’t critique from without, but a sincere self-examination from within. One-upping her male comrades and proving herself no mere pawn in the game, she catalyzes a walkabout in male territory using masculine tools, parsing out and denaturing the tools by inlaying slivers of skepticism about male dichotomies like “hero”/”villain” and “order”/”chaos”, here depicted as two sides of the same adolescent, testosterone-emitting coin. That Utah is meaningfully different at all from Brody is itself an object to be skewered in the film’s very shot patterns that slowly drift from askew angles to more balanced shots that merge the two men. Ultimately, she furnishes a quivering sense of male impotency as she bedevils both of the two principles to discover, on balance, that they might’ve found kinship in each other more readily than any woman.
Now, sincerity is all well and good in an age of arch manipulation and irony. But sincerity does not a good film make. For sincerity has a partner in crime, and its name is craftsmanship. And the fact of the matter is, for all its heaving opulence and boldface lunacy, Point Break is an exceedingly well crafted film. In addition to being a canny and insidious Svengali with ideas all her own about how to control male cinema for her own uses, Kathryn Bigelow is a psychotic genius as a visualist and at the time perhaps the most sure-handed director of action in the business. Sure, then-husband James Cameron was making the rounds that year with his box-office-manhandling Terminator 2, but Bigelow echoes her husband and raises him a far superior visual exegesis on the way shots and edits intertwine to exert contiguous, brute force frisson on the screen. She arguably has more ground to make up, of course – the material is prone to at times lugubrious talkativeness at a fundamental scripting level blissfully absent in T2. But that sort of crucible only makes the director’s eye the more pointed and the camera hand the more steady (or unfettered, depending upon your needs; Bigelow understands and makes use of both). She has more ground to make up, and that only makes her hungrier.
Bigelow directs the film like her life depends on it, the back-half exploding with friction and throbbing with batty diesel-fuel, ablaze with viscous visual charisma. Mid-way through the film there’s a masterfully crackling bank heist that screws down the desperation thick and then stages a narrative blow-up as a formal, visual collapse. Immediately after is a surprisingly pernicious, humble foot chase. The participants trip, flub their moves, fumble, totter, break things erratically, and generally act like unthinking primates or frail humans for whom fists are accessories to their souls; they’re desperate, and Bigelow’s frantic, harried direction and vertiginous camera work raises the neck hairs, tears the nerves, and suggestively comments on the competence of the characters. It’s a wonderfully graceless chase, for once, that embodies the exasperation and anxiety of its participants. Bigelow’s darting, perspective swapping camera swivels between the two characters and generally settles in directly behind them, doing everything it can to thrust us forward with the action. Her work is astoundingly physical, above all things, interested in cinema as a combination of space and tempo and form and flow. I would say it abstracts the action, but this film is all concrete and on the ground running with muscularity.
Now then, all this rambling about direction aside, the film isn’t perfect. In fact, it is very interested in making a commanding case for how bad it often is. For it isn’t merely bad; it is bad with vigor, jumping head first into its badness without batting an eye at good taste. Keanu Reeves is bland as wallpaper, and Swayze is no better. The dialogue is almost self-parodic. And the morality of the film walks a fine line which often (too often) oversteps into macho “mysticism”, the sort of male bond predicated on proving your worth through athletic achievement and a not-so-subcutaneous manarchism, attitudes towards which the film is confused and conflicted. But if it isn’t completely defensible as morality, the film at least prods around in its indefensible tomfoolery and tries to see what it can come up with, sabotaging the very characters it pumps up, but never endorses. Hare-brained, but hair-raising.