Monday, May 4, 2009

Point Break

Kathryn Bigelow has made three truly great films: Near Dark (1987), a vampire western, Strange Days (1995), a Cyberpunk thriller, and yes, Point Break (1991). This film is not great in the traditional sense. No, it is a great cheeseball action flick riddled with clichéd dialogue, stereotypical characters and by-the-numbers plotting. It also has some pretty quotable dialogue, kick-ass action sequences, and some breathtaking surfing footage. It was generally panned by critics upon its release, but did pretty well at the box office and has gone on to enjoy something of a minor cult following among action film fans who enjoy its breathlessly choreographed action sequences involving daring bank heists, car chases, skydiving and, of course, surfing – one of the film’s most important selling points.

So, here’s the premise: the FBI are baffled by a string of robberies committed by a group calling themselves the Ex-Presidents – thieves who disguise themselves by wearing masks of former United States Presidents: Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Enter the clean-cut Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), fresh from the academy and assigned to veteran agent and all around burn-out Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey). Pappas has a crazy theory that the Ex-Presidents are surfers when they aren’t bank robbers and he convinces Utah to go undercover as a wave rider-in-training so that he can get close to this tight-knit group. Unfortunately, Utah has zero surfing skills and nearly drowns before cute, tomboy surfer girl Tyler (Lori Petty) rescues him. He manages to convince her to teach him how to surf and she unwittingly acts as his contact to the exclusive surfing clique. She also introduces Utah to Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a “modern savage” surfer/adrenaline junkie in search of the ultimate ride. Pretty soon Utah figures out that Bodhi and his buddies are actually the Ex-Presidents, but he has to catch them in the act first.

Point Break trots out and downright revels in stereotypes: Utah is the all-American good guy, Pappas is the burn-out cop and they are constantly being chewed out by their jerk-off boss (John C. McGinley) for their screwball antics. The film wastes little time breaking out the requisite alpha male bonding scenes, like the football game on the beach at night where Utah proves that he’s got the balls to hang with Bodhi and his crew. After the he-man bonding session, Bodhi tells Utah about his dream of surfing the ultimate wave which will hit Bell’s Beach, Australia as the result of a massive storm that forms only once every 50 years. As soon as he says this, you just know that it’s going to play a part later on – it’s that kind of film.

Matthew Broderick, Charlie Sheen and Johnny Depp were all originally considered for the role of Johnny Utah when Ridley Scott was attached to direct. After the project fell through with Scott, the producers took the screenplay to other directors and James Cameron, who was married to Bigelow at the time, expressed an interest in executive producing. Bigelow had just completed Blue Steel (199) and was looking for her next project.

At the time, the casting of Keanu Reeves in an action film was considered a risky move. Remember, this was before Speed (1994) and The Matrix films. In a film filled with clichéd characters and dialogue, Reeves’ trademark blankness is an asset rather than a liability. The actor actually liked the name of his character (in its own dumb way it is pretty awesome if you think about it) because it reminded him of star athletes like Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana. In an interview he described his character as a “total control freak and the ocean beats him up and challenges him. After a while everything becomes a game … He becomes as amoral as any criminal. He loses the difference between right and wrong.” Pretty deep stuff, right? But it is this total commitment to character that makes his performance so fun to watch. The casting of Lori Petty as Reeves’ love interest is an unusual choice. I’m sure the studio probably wanted some blond bombshell Pam Anderson/Baywatch-type babe but instead Bigelow cast the tomboyish Petty who brings a lot of spunky charm to the role.

Point Break was originally called the painfully obvious Johnny Utah when Reeves was cast in the title role. Not surprisingly, 20th Century Fox felt that this title said very little about surfing and by the time Patrick Swayze was cast, the film had been renamed Riders on the Storm after the song of the same name by The Doors. However, Jim Morrison’s lyrics had nothing to do with the film and so that title was also rejected. It was not until halfway through filming that Point Break became the film’s title because of its relevance to surfing.

Surprisingly, it’s Swayze’s Zen master/surfer/bank robber Bodhi that doesn’t fall into an easy stereotype and comes across as the most interesting, charismatic character in the entire film. And you have to give the credit to Swayze and his oddly fascinating performance. We find ourselves rooting not for Keanu Reeves’ bland FBI agent but Swayze’s thrillseeking surfer. Point Break came along right after Swayze’s phenomenal success with Ghost (1990) and he went completely in the opposite direction with this film. He had already demonstrated a capacity for action film roles with Road House (1989) and looks like he’s having a blast in Point Break. Bodhi could have so easily been played as a silly stereotypical bad guy – the pseudo-philosopher criminal but Swayze is a good enough actor that he sells pretentious surfer credos like, “It’s a state of mind. It’s that place where you lose yourself and find yourself,” with complete conviction. It works because the actor believes in what he’s saying. So, it comes as no surprise that Swayze felt a kinship with his character and that they both shared “that wild-man edge.”

What can you say about Gary Busey that hasn’t already been said? He brings a hilariously unpredictable quality to every scene he’s in as you wonder if the filmmakers just let him improvise most of his dialogue. Busey’s introduction in the film is priceless. Utah meets Pappas for the first time at an exercise where the veteran agent has to retrieve two bricks from the bottom of a pool blindfolded (?!). We are never told what this is meant to prove or do but it does speak volumes about Pappas’ gonzo attitude towards life. Unaware that he’s talking to his new partner, Pappas gripes that he’s being paired up with some “quarterback punk.” Reeves’ response is right on the money as he introduces himself as “Punk, quarterback punk.” While Busey does provide a lot of the film’s humor, he can play it straight when he has to. He and Reeves have a good mentor/protégé relationship that develops over the course of the film. They play well off each other with the looseness of Busey’s performance contrasting Reeves’ stiffness. This is evident in the scene where Pappas asks Utah to order him two meatball sandwiches. Busey takes what could have been an average scene into something memorable with his offbeat delivery.

As for the supporting cast, there’s the terminally pissed off boss played by character actor extraordinaire John C. McGinley who rattles of a scene-stealing rant full of rapid-fire insults years before he’d be doing it on a regular basis on the television show Scrubs. Look closely and you’ll spot independent film veteran James LeGros (Scotland, PA) in a small role as one Bodhi’s crew. Look even closer and you’ll spot Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis as a part of a gang of small-time criminals/surfers who “only live to get radical” as Bodhi puts it. His one line of dialogue (the classic, “That would be a waste of time.” – believe me, it’s all in how it’s delivered) is delivered so badly that he makes Reeves look like Paul Newman in comparison. Tom Sizemore has a memorable cameo as a pissed off undercover DEA agent trying to bust a group of drug dealing surf Nazis. He would work with Bigelow again on Strange Days.

The surfing sequences are beautifully shot with the camera right there in the water with the surfers riding the waves as Bigelow does an excellent job of conveying the exhilarating rush of what it is like to be out there catching a wave, riding it in and the euphoric feeling that one gets from the experience. For the most part, it is pretty obvious where stunt doubles were used and where the actors were inserted for close-ups – the waves don’t match up. But hey, at least their faces aren’t digitally pasted onto a surfing double like in Blue Crush (2002).

Petty, Reeves and Swayze trained with former world class professional surfer Dennis Jarvis on the Hawaiian island of Kauai two months before filming. Jarvis remembers, “Patrick said he'd been on a board a couple of times, Keanu definitely hadn't surfed before, and Lori had never been in the ocean in her life.” Shooting the surfing sequences proved to be quite a challenge for all involved with Swayze cracking four of his ribs. For many of the surfing scenes he refused to use a stunt double as he never had one for fight scenes or car chases. He also did the skydiving scenes himself, which is insane but there’s total commitment for you.

Ever since Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow has shown an aptitude for well-choreographed action sequences but nothing on the level of what she would accomplish in Point Break. First up, is the raid on the red herring bank robbers that Bigelow expertly orchestrates by first building the tension as she establishes all the combatants and then the inevitable explosion of violence that culminates in an exciting struggle over the blades of a lawnmower. This is just warm-up however, for the next action sequence where Utah catches the Ex-Presidents robbing a bank and pursues their leader on foot after an exciting car chase through backyards and in the insides of houses in a suburb. The cameras pursue the two men as if we are chasing them (or sometimes being chased by them). Incredibly, Bigelow would top this sequence with an even more daringly choreographed chase scene in Strange Days, albeit from a first-person point-of-view.

Amazingly, Point Break received positive to mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "Bigelow is an interesting director for this material. She is interested in the ways her characters live dangerously for philosophical reasons. They aren't men of action, but men of thought who choose action as a way of expressing their beliefs.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Reeves' performance: "A lot of the snap comes, surprisingly, from Mr. Reeves, who displays considerable discipline and range. He moves easily between the buttoned-down demeanor that suits a police procedural story and the loose-jointed manner of his comic roles.” However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "C+" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Point Break makes those of us who don't spend our lives searching for the ultimate physical rush feel like second-class citizens. The film turns reckless athletic valor into a new form of aristocracy.”

In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, "A lot of what Bigelow puts up on the screen bypasses the brain altogether, plugging directly into our viscera, our gut. The surfing scenes in particular are majestically powerful, even awe-inspiring. Bigelow's picture is a feast for the eyes, but we watch movies with more than our eyes. She seduces us, then asks us to be bimbos." Rolling Stone magazine's Peter Travers wrote, "Bigelow can't keep the film from drowning in a sea of surf-speak. But without her, Point Break would be no more than an excuse to ogle pretty boys in wet suits." Point Break is the epitome of a guilty pleasure: to dumb to defend rationally but with action sequences too cool to dismiss totally. It’s a big, loud comic book of a film and it knows it and has the conviction to go for it. Where most action films have a tendency to collapse under the weight of their collective clichés, Point Break works because of them.


4 comments:

  1. Hey JD. I've only seen this movie once. It was right after it hit video. I did enjoy it. It's not a great movie or anything, but it was a fun movie to watch. Good writeup on it.

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  2. Hey Keith. I agree that POINT BREAK is no masterpiece but it is a wildly entertaining film that is a lot of fun to watch.

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  3. It may not be a masterpiece, but it was the best film of 1991, in my humble opinion.

    Also, you failed to mention that it features the underrated Lori Petty, the hot androgynous girlfriend I used to crush on.

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  4. Tony Dayoub:

    Hey there! I did mention Lori Petty just not a length, but she is quite good in the film... great casting against type!

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