RETRO MOVIE NERD: Point Break (1991)

POINT BREAK, 1991, bank robbers in presidential masks: Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Johnson. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved..

Hey! It’s time to stop surfing the internet for a moment so that you can catch a wave of nostalgia with this week’s edition of Retro Movie Nerd. That’s really all the surfing terms I can make fit into this intro, thank goodness. Let’s go back to the summer of 1991, a time when Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” dominated the radio waves. Ducking into the movie theater was the only escape from that song, so with Terminator 2: Judgment Day sold out, Point Break was a good second option.

Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity
Running time: 122 min.
Release date: July 12, 1991

The premise of Point Break is truly something out of the campy beach comedies of the 1960s. You know, the type of movies that starred the iconic teen idol of the era, Frankie Avalon. Or maybe it’s even something out of the Adam West Batman TV series, with Batman squaring off against The Joker in an all-or-nothing surfing contest. In Point Break, a federal agent and his partner deduce that a series of bank robberies are being orchestrated by a gang of surfers, so let’s send the dashing young agent undercover as a guy learning to surf in order to infiltrate the gang. Yeah, that’s the basic premise. However, Point Break handles the story in a way that miraculously takes a goofy idea and surprisingly makes it work, despite some silly plot holes and contrivances along the way.

Point Break could have easily been this campy.

Keanu Reeves plays the aptly-named Johnny Utah, a former star college football quarterback and now a rookie FBI agent. He is partnered with the experienced veteran and wildman Angelo Pappas, played by Gary Busey, who seems to be channeling Nick Nolte here. They are investigating a string of daring bank robberies by a gang calling themselves “The Ex-Presidents,” due to the fact that they wear rubber masks in the guise of former Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter and Reagan. The heists are limited to 90 seconds and the group only raid the cash drawers. Pappas has a theory that the gang are surfers, citing evidence such as chemicals found in a footprint that are also found in surfboard wax and the tan line on one gang member who moons the security camera. Based on that theory, Utah goes undercover to infiltrate the surfing community. He meets a young woman named Tyler (Lori Petty), who scoffs at him at first, immediately assuming him to be a straight arrow in over his head with a surfboard, but Utah utilizes his FBI resources (i.e. a background check) to break down her defenses and have her teach him the basics of surfing. Through his connection with Tyler, he meets her ex-boyfriend Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). He is the charismatic leader and Zen master of a small gang of surfers. Utah finds himself drawn in by Bodhi’s lifestyle of adrenaline rushes and philosophies. Soon after, Utah and Pappas lead a raid on the hideout of a different gang of surfers, leading to a thrilling and violent shoot-out that is just one of several action highlights of the movie.

Anthony Keidis of Red Hot Chili Peppers was in this movie. Perhaps “Utah” should have been his character’s last name, if you see what I did there.

Eventually, it dawns on Utah that the group he’s been hanging ten with might just be the gang they’re after. After some shadowing off-screen, Utah and Pappas stake out the bank that the gang has been scoping and sure enough, the Ex-Presidents arrive. The best action sequence of the film takes place here, first with a car chase, then on foot through alleys and backyards and homes, with Utah attempting to bust Bodhi. We get the memorable scene of Bodhi climbing a fence, and Utah, bum knee and all, shooting his gun in the air, as he cannot bring himself to take Bodhi down. It is after this scene that the story begins to fall apart, with Utah complicitly accompanying Bodhi and the gang on a sky-diving adventure, even when the two parties are fully aware of the other’s identity. There is a great aerial scene with Utah jumping out of a plane without a chute and tackling Bodhi mid-air, but then the story devolves further, with Tyler basically reduced to being the damsel in distress. The only thing missing was her being tied to the railroad tracks and Bodhi twirling his mustache. This plot breakdown slightly betrays the material that had been built before it, discarding the philosophical subtext and the relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi, and reducing the story to a black and white, good guy/bad guy plot. However, the many action scenes throughout do keep the viewer on the edge of their seat, thanks mostly to the skill of director Kathryn Bigelow.

“Mr. Utah, tear down —uhhh—–LINE???”

Bigelow, of course, would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Director for the film The Hurt Locker not 20 years later. She is quite skillful at directing action scenes, but the best scene in the film involved the foot chase between Utah and Bodhi. Using a handheld camera for the action, the viewer is zipping through back alleys, backyards and homes in urban Los Angeles in a most thrilling manner. The surfing and aerial photography in the film are also top-shelf quality. There is also some philosophizing in Bigelow’s work here. The opening credits include a montage of Bodhi surfing with Utah taking target practice in a downpour of rain, showing us two vastly different people who are about to be connected.

The screenplay by W. Peter Iliff starts off with intelligence, some wit and deep moments, but then takes Swayze’s mystical and earthy character and turns him into “just another bad guy.” The final scene cheats us a little, because everything that had been built up between Utah and Bodhi was thrown away, and there should be no way that Utah makes the decision he does in the final moments. Bigelow believes that there is still something between the two characters leading up to this scene, but I didn’t feel it, having seen it all washed away.

Point Break has the perfect cast. Reeves is quite capable of playing the authority figure who is also a man of action. See his performance in Speed as evidence of that. But here, he also exudes a level of intelligence, as seen in scenes where he is doing actual investigative work. When he allows himself to be taken in by Bodhi, Reeves shows us a vulnerable side to the character, as he feels the rush from having successfully navigated a wave. Patrick Swayze has the tougher job of the two, claiming to be a man who doesn’t like violence, all the while brandishing a weapon while robbing banks. His zen-like moments are quite convincing, and makes it believable that Bodhi would have people following him around like lost sheep. The character is somewhat betrayed by the screenplay, however, quickly making him move from anti-heroic philosopher to a villain with a plan. Lori Petty, as Tyler, starts off as witty and bright, teaching Utah the ways of the surfing community, as well as having insight into Bodhi’s character. Then she is reduced to Woman in Danger and almost forgotten about in the last third of the plot. Gary Busey provides his usual manic performance as the veteran agent, and brings the story back into focus in a few scenes. Also, kudos to John C. McGinley for doing what he does best: being an asshole.

Point Break is a good film for the most part. It delivers on a visceral level with plenty of well-constructed action scenes, good-looking scenery and locations and solid performances from the cast. The plot really falls apart near the end, running out of steam way too soon. Kathryn Bigelow’s handling of the action elements keep the film moving while taking the original premise and making it into something serious and mostly interesting. Perhaps if the screenplay was able to keep the character relationships constant throughout the story, the final scene would have played out better.

RATING: *** – Passable entertainment.

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