Point Break (30th anniversary revisit)
July 12, 1991
Hot on the heels of James Cameron’s TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY came the other most important action movie of summer ’91, Kathryn Bigelow’s POINT BREAK. Cameron was famously married to Bigelow at the time, and is credited as executive producer, and the film has parallels to his in its technical perfection and intensity of action. The pair had reworked an original script called JOHNNY UTAH by W. Peter Iliff (PRAYER OF THE ROLLERBOYS), co-story credit to Rick King (director of PRAYER OF THE ROLLERBOYS), with Cameron doing a last minute pass to improve the action scenes before immediately shifting to T2. “She basically is 100% responsible for the final film from that point on,” Cameron reportedly said at a convention in ’91. And clearly it’s Bigelow’s combination of impeccable craft and counterintuitive artistic choices that made POINT BREAK a hit, then a cult favorite, then an enduring classic.
The choice that seemed crazy at the time, and prophetic now, was her insistence on casting Keanu Reeves as the college football legend turned overachieving FBI rookie Johnny Utah. By all accounts Bigelow had to fight for Reeves, because producers wanted someone else. That’s understandable – he’d been in the dark indie thriller RIVER’S EDGE and the period piece DANGEROUS LIAISONS, but was best known to the world as Ted from BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, with whom he inescapably shared a lovable stoner airhead sounding voice. On the other hand, when the movie was almost made by Ridley Scott a few years earlier he’d had Matthew Broderick in the role. You’re telling me that made more sense!?
Reeves’ performance was mocked by some. In 2003 some Seattle people I knew started Point Break Live!, the central joke of which was to pick someone out of the audience to play Johnny Utah unrehearsed, reading from cue cards. (The show became a cult hit playing for years in L.A., New York and other cities, with Bigelow even attending once and Lori Petty playing Johnny another time.) I know those were people who appreciated the movie, but I think there was a time when some considered it a “so bad it’s good” type deal. I never felt that way, but when I first reviewed it in 2007 I said Reeves was “actually pretty bad in the movie.”
What I see now that I didn’t then is how interesting the contradictions are. Johnny’s voice sometimes plays as dumb, but Mr. top-2%-at-Quantico’s words are sharp as a tack. On his first day at the FBI office his boss Harp (John C. McGinley in the same year as HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING) tries to overwhelm him with a lightning-speed walk-and-talk, but Johnny keeps up and even laps him with wiseass responses (“I guess we must have ourselves an asshole shortage.” “Not so far.”)
While undercover as a surfer to identify a gang of summertime bank robbers, Johnny occasionally amps up the Ted voice to the fit the stereotype. But he’s tall and good looking in a way that fits with the locals considering him a yuppie tourist. Within the FBI, though, he’s the weirdo underdog. Harp is furious that he un-self-consciously carries his surfboard around with him at headquarters. And in addition to being the rookie, the 22-year-veteran he’s been paired with, Pappas (Gary Busey, PREDATOR 2), is already a source of mockery for his (correct) theory about the robbers being surfers (deduced in part by finding traces of what could be Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax on a bank counter). When smarmy Alvarez (Julian Reyes, DIE HARD 2) and Babbit (Daniel Beer, HELL HIGH) come over to make fun of him, they giggle like high school bullies, immediately turning Pappas and Utah into the freaks & geeks you can root for.
If you’ve been following this summer of ’91 series you know I see it as a time of evolution for the way women could be depicted in popular entertainment, particularly in THELMA & LOUISE and T2. POINT BREAK flips this around by having a woman behind the camera who defies assumptions and seems interested in exploring different types of masculinity. She casts smooth-bodied, dreamy-eyed Reeves as the triumphant hero and bounces him off of barking man’s-man character actors Busey, McGinley and Tom Sizemore. It’s a high testosterone world she’s depicting, with only one major female character: Lori Petty (BATES MOTEL) as Tyler Endicott, the local Johnny convinces to teach him surfing and then falls for.
According to a retrospective in Rolling Stone, Bigelow “retooled W. Peter Iliff’s script to toughen up the female protagonist, morphing her from a blond beach babe to a muscled, brash waitress with an androgynous name and physical features.” I couldn’t find the earlier draft, but Bigelow’s describes Tyler’s “Swimmer’s shoulders. Long muscular legs. Lean and mean.” Petty was known for the TV show Booker, and her only movie had been CADILLAC MAN. The next year she’d do A LEAGUE OF HER OWN, and eventually TANK GIRL would become the ultimate cinematic expression of her specific brand of spunky, non-conformist, tomboyish spirit. She was arguably as far from the traditional choice as Reeves was, and balanced him perfectly.
There’s one subtle parallel to the simultaneously-written T2 in that we get to see Tyler’s arrest record on a computer screen. Her rap sheet is much longer than John Connor’s, but it’s mostly speeding tickets. She’s also like John Connor in that she teaches the stiff Johnny Utah how to do and feel some things.
But Tyler’s disdain for and then attraction to Johnny is palpable, and the physical consummation of their relationship has a sensuality it’s hard to picture being present if the movie were directed by a dude. They start to kiss in the water at night, and it cuts to them waking up in daylight on the beach. It completely skips over the fucking in the sand part in favor of Johnny in a panic, rushing to get dressed and get to a stakeout he’s supposed to be at, but then stopping to lovingly kiss Tyler repeatedly. They seem so genuinely into each other it feels voyeuristic.
But the real love story of the movie is, of course, the friendship and rivalry between Johnny and surf-philosopher-king/armed robbery ringleader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze, fresh off of GHOST, which has already been parodied in NAKED GUN 2 1/2). Fortunately this was before the term “bromance,” though it was when male friendships in movies were often labeled “homoerotic.” Swayze said in interviews at the time that he “wanted to play it like a love story between two men.” I honestly can’t tell how literally he meant that, but the development of their friendship really does play like a dating scenario: they meet via mutual friend Tyler, Bodhi scoffs at him but then realizes he saw him play football before and hits it off with him, later runs into him by chance (during a brawl), walks him to his car and invites him to a party at his house. I mean, come on!
A weird thing about the movie I often forget is how long it takes Johnny to figure out that the guys he’s hanging out with are the armed robbers. It seems like a given to the audience, but Johnny has his eye on Warchild (Vincent Klyn, CYBORG, KICKBOXER 2, BLOODMATCH) and friends, or as I usually think of them, “Anthony Kiedis and those guys.” They attack Johnny on the beach for no reason and swerve around on the freeway standing up in a Jeep like they’re in a MAD MAX movie. Bodhi calls them “Nazi assholes” and says “they live to get radical. They don’t have any understanding of the sea, so they’ll never get the spiritual side of it.” Johnny winds up being backup on a raid of their house, and they’re armed to the teeth and ready to go out in a blaze of glory, but are not the robbers – they’re selling meth. So when Johnny finds out that the guy he thought was his cool new friend is actually the one he needs to bust it breaks his heart.
There’s a key turning point when Johnny correctly guesses when and where they’re going to rob next, but the stake out is fucked up by Pappas’ love of meatball sandwiches. Instead of preventing the robbery they give chase afterwards. Johnny catches up to the disguised Bodhi on foot, and gets enough of a look to know that’s his friend’s eyes behind the Ronald Reagan mask. He almost shoots, but can’t do it, fires in the air and tells a disbelieving Pappas that he missed.
But he shouldn’t have shot him! That was an unarmed man with his back turned! What the fuck!
Swayze was a one-of-a-kind movie star, and I realized years ago that my favorite thing about him is his potent aura of sincerity. Even in his silliest roles (not that this is one of them) he never seems laughable or foolish in the way ego driven alpha-males like Seagal sometimes do, because his self confidence doesn’t come off as self obsession. He’s more innocent than that, even here, where he’s the bad guy.
In this role in particular he seems to absolutely believe that “he’s a modern savage, he’s a real searcher,” and all the “Zen surf master” / “surfing guru” / bodhisattva stuff he says. He also fully invests himself in the physicality of the role, from the sun-bleached tips of his flowing hair to his perfectly sculpted body. I’m no fitness guy but I think his build is different from how it was for ROAD HOUSE. Perfectly ripped, but a little more compact, less beefy, like he designed the exact figure needed for a surfer as opposed to a bouncer.
And then he’s up there (sometimes) riding those waves, he throws himself into the beach football game, hauling ass in a belly-exposing t-shirt and jeans, leaping and tackling Johnny and rolling on the sand. He glides in to do some great Dalton style kicks on Warchild (real name: Lupton Pitman) and friends when they’re beating up Johnny. And when he skydives – something Swayze did do for real, reportedly performing 55 jumps for the movie – you can see his dancerly form as he drops out of the plane and pulls his legs up to his face. It’s also a more complex character than many Swayze has played, because he uses all his charm to be the most likable guy in the movie, to be convincing in his crusade, but ultimately he’s flawed and toxic and full of shit, swearing “I hate violence!” but willing to use Rosie (Lee Tergesen, MIND BENDERS) as a “mechanism” to kidnap and threaten Tyler, no different from the presidents he lampoons in his crime spree.
But then somehow you’re still relieved he gets to surf that 50 year storm, going out on his own terms!
Bigelow and her team – including d.p. Donald Peterman (WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, FLASHDANCE) and editor Howard E. Smith (RIVER’S EDGE, NEAR DARK, THE ABYSS) – are just as sturdy and agile as Swayze when it comes to action filmmaking and visual storytelling chops. Of course the film is novel for its high amount of great surfing footage and its two incredible skydiving sequences, with clever practical effects for closeups and dialogue, but also many shots of the actors in actual free fall. But man, does Bigelow know how to shoot an exciting action scene. Or an exciting scene in general! The controlled handheld and whip pans following Johnny and Harp in the walk and talk, or the gang during the robberies. The closeups of the gang putting their gear on in the car pre-robbery, cut like a Rambo suiting up montage. The robbery going into the gas station car burning (where Jeff Imada almost gets torched) going into Johnny vs. Bodhi residential area pursuit, honestly one of the best foot chase scenes I know of.
And you know what, I’m gonna honor the raid on Warchild’s house with a separate paragraph or two, because that scene is amazing. When Pappas knocks on the door saying he’s looking for his dog Scooby, a woman credited as “Fiberglass” (Kimberly Martin) answers the door and tries to get rid of him, as the various tattooed, shaved and braided shirtless dudes in the house realize something is up and run for their literal pile of guns. For her trouble poor Fiberglass gets taken hostage and then accidentally cut through by Warchild screaming and firing some crazy machine gun like he thinks he’s Arnold in PREDATOR. Bigelow creates a masterful feeling of controlled chaos – you know what’s going on but you never know when the close quarters gun fight will be punctuated by chaos like Kiedis’ character Tone screaming as a gory hole is blown through his foot, or the woman (Julie Michaels, ROAD HOUSE) Johnny saw in steamy-shower-door silhouette when he looked in the window bursting out, still naked and beating the shit out of him. (Michaels later played the shower-babe-who’s-actually-an-undercover-FBI-agent in the opening of JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY.)
And there’s a great device involving a lawnmower. First, Johnny has to duck in the bushes to not be spotted by the guy mowing the lawn. Then the noise from it prevents Alvarez and Babbit from hearing his warning over the walkie-talkie. And later when the fight moves into the yard, Johnny’s face is nearly pushed into the spinning blades of the mower.
It’s also just a gorgeous looking movie with all its sunshine and water. I think it’s relevant that Peterman had previously shot Ron Howard’s water-based movies SPLASH and COCOON. I love the way he shoots the meet-cute between Johnny and Tyler, where she rescues him from drowning and then yells at him that he has “no business whatsoever out here.” They’re shot beautifully silhouetted, a striking image that captures the time of day and has the added bonus of stylistically matching later shots where they’re trying to disguise stunt doubles.
So there’s no question this is a great action movie. But what is it about? In one of her few appearances on the blu-ray extras, Bigelow describes it as “the world of surfing vs. the penal system,” which I’d love to hear the director (who has a master’s degree in theory and criticism) explain further. But my interpretation is that Johnny comes from the rigid world of law and order and a boss who yells at him and tells him what to eat, and he sees the appeal of this other world where you get to “find yourself” and look a wave in the eye and “accept its energy and then get in sync with it,” and do things that feel like “sex with the gods,” and you can make your own schedule, even sleep in with your girlfriend (on the beach) instead of getting up and running to work to get your face shoved in a lawnmower.
The president masks (and calling their plane Air Force One!) indicate a more specifically political statement that I’m not sure is there. Certainly the images of a guy in a Reagan mask using a gas pump as a blow torch have a certain ghoulish resonance for those of us who already see him that way. But I think the emphasis is on a bohemian lifestyle, an anti-9-to-5, pro-seeking-enlightenment-through-thrills philosophy. Bodhi has disdain or pity for people who spend their lives commuting to joyless jobs rather than finding something he sees as spiritual to do with their lives, like surfing – which is “a state of mind, where you lose yourself, before you find yourself.” He’s disappointed to hear the lie that Johnny is a lawyer, but says, “Well, life’s not over yet. You’re surfin.” He believes his is a whole different way of life: “We can exist on a different plane. We can make our own rules.” And based on his inspirational speech to the troops after they’ve found out that Johnny is an FBI agent, but before they’ve killed or kidnapped anyone, I think Bodhi really believes he’s making an important statement to the world. “This was never about money for us. It was about us against the system. That system that kills the human spirit. We stand for something… we show them that the human spirit is still alive.”
But there’s a dark side he’s not addressing, a self-destructive addiction to danger. When the others are freaking out that a federal agent has identified them, Bodhi’s actually excited about it: “All this does is up the stakes of the game.” Tyler, who used to date Bodhi, has him and his friends pegged. She’s pretty observant about dumb shit men do (“God, men are so bad at this”), but also I think because of the way her parents died she takes life and death more seriously than they do. (That’s why when she discovers Johnny is FBI the first thing she asks is if his parents really died – a cruel lie he told her to get close to her.) She says that “Big wave riding is for macho assholes with a death wish.” She calls Bodhi’s dream of surfing a 50 year storm “banzai bullshit” and frets that Johnny’s “got that kamikaze look.” And sure enough, when Bodhi does see the 50 year storm it ends up being a means of suicide.
The one thing about Tyler that sits a little odd with me is how she’s furious about the betrayal of starting a relationship as an undercover mission, then is violently abducted by her supposed friends because of it, but when she’s released she runs right into his arms. But I suppose she now has the clearest possible understanding of why those guys need to be busted. And we know – though she doesn’t – how sincere Johnny is in his feelings for her. We saw him laying on his bed clutching the phone to his bare chest waiting for her call before the boys showed up to force him to skydive as a trust exercise before showing all their cards.
In the end Johnny finishes the job and then throws his badge in the water, and it seems to me it’s more with the satisfaction of quitting and being free than with the disgust with The System that Dirty Harry had when he did the same thing. It’s even established in that epilogue (taking place after a prolonged international chase, and filmed after BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY) that Johnny is still surfing. “Every day,” he says. Like the kid at the surf shop (Christopher Pettiet, the lady’s man little brother from DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD) told him when he bought his first board, “Hope you stick with it. It’ll change your life.”
Bodhi may not survive, but what he preached lives on in Johnny.
POINT BREAK opened at #4 at the box office, beneath T2, a re-release of 101 DALMATIONS, and BOYZ N THE HOOD. But it eventually made $84.5 worldwide on a $24 million budget, and found even more of an audience on video and cable. By the time there was a remake in 2015 it was held so sacred that I have still never once talked to another person that saw the remake or wasn’t kinda disgusted that I had.
Reeves, of course, fulfilled Bigelow’s prophecy and became a great action star via SPEED (1994), THE MATRIX (1999), MAN OF TAI CHI (2013) and JOHN WICK (2014), and is now less mocked and more beloved by most people who aren’t dumbfucks. Swayze continued to be a captivating and passionate actor until his tragic death of cancer at age 57 in 2009. I wish he could’ve done more action movies later on. Maybe he was afraid he couldn’t top this one. BLACK DOG was pretty good, though.
Rick King, who came up with the surfer bank robbers concept, would next do KICKBOXER 3: THE ART OF WAR. Screenwriter W. Peter Iliff went on to write PATRIOT GAMES, VARSITY BLUES and UNDER SUSPICION. He also wrote a sequel called POINT BREAK: INDO. I actually read a draft that was rewritten by John Morgan, to be directed by Jan de Bont in 2008. It had a gang of sea pirates called The Bush Administration, with Bush, Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell masks. The hero was an ex-Marine surfer named Billy Dalton and there were these scenes of a guy whose face you don’t see recuperating with a shaman in a hut having dreams about a mysterious surfer, but only the guy in the dream turns out to be Bodhi and not the guy in the hut. Which made me wonder if they wanted it to be Bodhi but couldn’t count on it since Swayze was sick at the time.
At any rate, the end credits were supposed to take place over a “Hawaiian Surfers Tribute” ceremony with famous surfers and cast members from the first movie. By 2009, NEVER BACK DOWN director Jeff Wadlow had signed on,with Cam Gigandet starring. But of course it never got off the ground.
In 2017 Iliff wrote and directed a short called Trump’s America, about “a wise-cracking pandhandler.” A press-kit-style IMDb summary calls it “a provocative tale that examines the lawless Wild West of L.A.’s growing homeless epidemic, and present characters on many sides of the issue, where nobody is necessarily a villain, and all of us need to participate in finding a solution.”
In 2020, Iliff’s idea of a “solution” was to conspire on Nextdoor and GoFundMe to hire a crew to clear out a homeless encampment from a tunnel in his West L.A. neighborhood and replace it with 66 boulders. Disgusted volunteers removed some of the boulders and the outcry was severe enough that the city council forced Iliff to pay for the removal of the boulders.
So anyway I am not a fan.
But Bigelow has remained respectable. Her 1995 followup STRANGE DAYS reunited her with co-writer and producer Cameron, by then her ex-husband. She did some episodes of Homicide: Life On the Street and the okay mystery drama THE WEIGHT OF WATER (2000) before she kinda got into director’s jail because her (very good) submarine movie K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER was the most expensive movie ever directed by a woman at the time, but did not do well.
But she famously returned in 2008 with the war drama THE HURT LOCKER, which won best picture (over Cameron’s AVATAR) and made her the first woman to win the best director Oscar. Though this was her first Very Respectable movie, I feel it plays off of many action movie tropes and utilizes her chops in suspenseful bomb defusing sequences. The search-for-bin-Laden dramatization ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) is even better, and I also respect the racist-cop-atrocity true story DETROIT (2017). But if she was ever interested I sure would love to see Bigelow try to deal with some of these themes in the context of fun genre movies like she used to in the POINT BREAK days.
Signs that ’91 is not that long after the ‘80s: The end credits song, “Nobody Rides for Free” by Ratt. (Otherwise the soundtrack ranges from Concrete Blonde to Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” to Ice-T’s “Original Gangster.”)
Cultural references: Pappas talks about how funny a Calvin & Hobbes strip is.
In jokes about other Swayze classics: When Johnny is telling Pappas about following Bodhi around all day he says he had lunch at “Patrick’s Roadhouse.” Too bad they didn’t thrown in any references to STEEL DAWN or UNCOMMON VALOR.