We all have Kathryn Bigelow to thank for the Keanu Reeves action movie star currently tearing it up in the John Wick franchise. It all started with Point Break (1991). It was generally panned by critics upon its release and it performed modestly at the box office, spawning a minor cult following among action film fans. It is a great film but not 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 involving daring bank heists, car chases, skydiving and, of course, breathtaking surfing footage – one of the film’s most important selling points. What was once viewed as a guilty pleasure, Point Break has aged like a fine wine and should be regarded as one of the best action films of the 1990s.
Here’s the premise: the FBI are baffled by a string of robberies committed in the Los Angeles area 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 (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, which includes Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a “modern savage” surfer/adrenaline junkie in search of the ultimate ride. Once Utah makes the connection between Bodhi and his crew and the bank robberies, all hell breaks loose.
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, casting 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) as 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? It is this total commitment to character, however, that makes his performance so fun to watch. Just watch and bask in the over-the-top intensity in which he delivers the classic line, “I AM AN FBI AGENT!” dramatically enunciating every word.
The casting of Lori Petty as Reeves’ love interest is an unusual choice. I’m sure the studio probably wanted some blond bombshell Pamela Anderson/Baywatch-type babe but instead Bigelow cast the tomboyish Petty who brings a lot of spunky charm to the role. With her short haircut and lithe build she has an asexual quality that makes for an interesting match with the equally androgynous Reeves. Petty enjoyed the experience of filming, getting to surf and of course, “It’s me and five hot, wet dudes all the time. ‘Oh, Lori, you’re going to make out with Patrick Swayze.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘Now you’re going to make out with Keanu.’ ‘Okay. On the same day? Awesome!’”
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. Jim Morrison’s lyrics had nothing to do with the film, however, 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. You have to give the credit to Swayze and his oddly fascinating performance. We find ourselves rooting not for 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 character’s 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 drama as well as the dramatic showdown at the airport late in the film demonstrates. 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 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 (1987), 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 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 a 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 (1995), 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: too 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. It would pave the way for Reeves to reach greater heights in the action genre with Speed and then, much to everyone’s amazement, take it up another level with The Matrix films. They all laid the groundwork for the John Wick movies, which see Reeves build on what he established with his previous action movie work by recapturing the adrenaline rush of visceral action from Point Break with the notion of a self-contained cinematic universe from The Matrix (1999).
"Board Certified." Entertainment Weekly. July 26, 1991.
"Board Certified." Entertainment Weekly. July 26, 1991.
"Point Break DVD Liner Notes." Point Break: Pure Adrenaline Edition. 20th Century Fox. 2006.
Strauss, Bob. "I'd like to do a lot of different things." The Globe and Mail. July 12, 1991.
Thomas, Karen. "Swayze's latest step." USA Today. July 12, 1991.
Willistein, Paul. "Swayze enjoys bad-guy role in Point Break." Toronto Star. July 17, 1991.
Zuckerman, Esther. "Lori Petty talks Orange Is The New Black and tells an amazing Whitney Houston story." A.V. Club. July 14, 2016.