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Okay, hotshot. You want to nail the bank robbers and be a hero?

Point Break
(1991)

(SPOILERS) Why fathomable reason would you have to remake Point Break? I guess, if Shane Black delivered a rewrite, it would be irresistible. But this a movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow. You’d be a fool to think you could approximate the “100% pure adrenaline” she fuels it with. That hasn’t stopped the new version, up against Star Wars at the end of this year. Which isn’t to say Point Break is a perfect movie, although for a long while I was probably happy to treat it as such. It is, though, a purveyor of some of the finest action beats ever committed to celluloid and an example of a (only just; Bogus Journey opened a couple of weeks earlier in the US) post-Ted Theodore Logan Keanu Reeves utilised well.


If there’s a problem with Point Break, it’s that it peaks early, even if that peak is worthy of the climax of most movies. When Keanu’s Johnny Utah (a deliriously brilliant stupid name) interrupts the getaway of the Ex-Presidents’ latest bank job, it leads to a never-bested foot chase in which his quarry, Bodhi “Bodhisatvah” (Patrick Swizzle) throws everything but the kitchen sink at him to put him off. It’s the scene Hot Fuzz riffs on (irritatingly in hindsight, as you don’t want to forever associate a masterpiece of action shooting with Nick Frost’s piss take); kinetic, handheld, a miniature storyline in itself.


But after the cat’s out of the bag (or the dog’s been dropped on Keanu, and he’s kicked it away – Johnny Utah says no to flying pooches) the picture doesn’t have anywhere quite as interesting or fun left to go. It takes the customary – and unnecessary in this case as it adds nothing to Utah’s already piled-on plate – course of having the hero’s partner go down heroically in order to up the ante, but Johnny then becomes a sideshow in his own movie, despite the skydiving and brutal smack down on an Australian beach. With the exit of Gary Busey (and John C McGinley) the all-important fun element of Point Break exits to, and what’s left is self-importance it just can’t support; it needs a balance of knowing self-puncturing.


Bodhi: You want the ultimate, you’ve got to pay the ultimate price.

One might argue that’s germane to the intent; the ride is over for Bodhi and his crew. But I’m not sure the script was ever a good enough one to justify such a tack. Bodhi is, at best, a clumsy commentary on Californian New Age spirituality, someone more than happy to talk the talk but when it comes down to it his actions show immaturity, who understands nothing of what he espouses (reflecting his lecture to Johnny on how he doesn’t yet get what it means to surf), who allows an associate to threaten Tyler’s life because he couldn’t himself. At worst, Bodhi’s just a dopey idea of a character that makes negligible sense, lacking the meta-humour that comes with Busey’s idea that the surfers are bank robbers; it’s a ridiculous idea, audiences will think its ridiculous, so everyone else in the FBI also thinks its ridiculous.


Bodhi’s “a real savage. He’s a real searcher”, but even as much as Utah’s idolisation of Swizzle and his blond perm are destined to take a fall, Bodhi’s justification is weak (“This was never about the money for us. It was about us against the system. A system that kills the human spirit. We stand for something”). This is delivered earnestly, and Bodhi’s exit (this being a bromance) is allowed the dignity and grandeur of the 50-year storm (“You know there’s no way I can handle a cage, man”). Point Break’s a picture that continually flirts with its own stupidity, so when it buys into that stupidity in the last 40 minutes you have a choice to give up or go along with it. 


It says something for Bigelow’s directorial prowess that she very nearly pulls the straight-faced daftness off. Hell, she gives Swizzle (never one of my favourite actors, I have to admit) a sterling part and he runs with it (he was on a minor unforeseen roll at this point, coming off the enormous success of Ghost).  The picture’s better at the more subtle serious moments than the overt ones; the youthful bravado of Grommet (Bojesse Christopher, who cameos in the remake) that he won’t live to see 30 is borne out in the final bank raid.



Pappas: Okay, hotshot. You want to nail the bank robbers and be a hero?
Utah: Definitely.

As for Keanu, he’s very pointedly and knowingly cast. I’m not saying Bigelow or anyone else was conscious of his limitations the way we all are now, but its hardly coincidental that the Bill and Ted airhead persona is “like, totally” allowed for in his character, even if Utah graduated in the top 2% of his class (the “like totally rad, dude” piss-take of Pappas’ theory regarding surfer bank robbers could as easily be a reference to Ted). The heavy lifting for the Reeves-Utah persona is obligingly done with effortless flair by McGinley’s supervisor Ben Harp in his introductory scene, who refers to Johnny as “a real blue fame special; young, dumb and full of cum”.


Harp: I guess we must just have an asshole shortage, huh?
Utah (after Harp is out of earshot): Not so far.

And Reeves, like a duck to water, makes the role his own. It helps that Bigelow furnishes him with an eclectic supporting cast, such that he fits right in, but part of it is simply that an unlikely premise such as this is completely at home with an idiosyncratic performer like Keanu. Reeves is, as anyone who’s seen Bill and Ted will tell you, an accomplished comedic actor (he should do more comedies, actually) and his riffing off McGinley and Busey makes for some of the picture’s best moments that aren’t action scenes.


Harp: Now, for Christ’s sake, does either one of you have anything even remotely interesting to tell me?
Utah: I caught my first tube this morning, sir.

Reeves’ delivery makes many of his lines instant trailer moments; “You’re trying to tell me the FBI’s going to pay me to learn to surf?”: “Okay, dad!”: “Yeah, right. Vision is highly overrated”) And he has an easy chemistry with the lovely Lori Petty (Tyler), although you suspect she’s doing most of the work in making their romance believable. He’s on solid ground interacting with Bodhi and his crew too.


There are occasional hiccups. While the establishing of the backgrounds of both Utah and Pappas (Busey; he’s been in the field 19 years, fired his weapon 19 times and “I’ve got no idea what being a blind man at the bottom of a pool has to do with being a special agent”), the exchange leading to the latter revealing his theory on the Ex-Presidents is excruciatingly ham-fisted, and Reeves isn’t up to making it work. Utah winds up Pappas to get him to feel like he is still alive and, aside from Pappas’ ire (“I was taking shrapnel in Kaesong when you were crapping in your hands and rubbing it on your face!”), Reeves can do earnest, but don’t push him to far into emoting or your looking at a wooden performance on screen (“Fuck! Why can’t I say what I really mean?”). He’s great at action too. The sequence leading to the raid on the suspected Ex-Presidents sees him show up casually (“I can’t believe your late to your own raid. What a flake”) before mustering into effect.


Busey is just magnificent as the old pro ‘Nam veteran, bringing a livewire lunacy to what is typically the staid old Danny Glover type role. His comeback to a pissed off (uncredited) Tom Sizemore, a DEA Agent whose operation has been blown, moaning about his dyed hair and three months work down the tubes, is a dismissively taunting “Nice tattoo, Deets”. 


Then there’s his dedication to meatball sandwiches and uber-relaxed attitude (“This Calvin & Hobbes is funny!”) while on a surveillance op, his insults (“Speak into the microphone, squid brain”), and punching the lights out of the indescribably abusive Harp (“Why don’t you astonish me, shit face?”)


Surfer: Lawyers don’t surf.

Screenwriters W Peter Iliff (Patriot Games, Under Suspicion, Varsity Blues) and Rich King (nothing of note) follow the manual unnecessarily when it comes to killing of Pappas (although this may be down to Bigelow and Cameron, who did an uncredited rewrite; the legend-making is all Cameron, I’m sure). By this point they’ve already dispensed with McGinley’s Harp, so the pain of the loss of humour in the picture is doubly felt. The angry superior is a staple of these movies, such that it was recognised in the likes of Loaded Weapon 1 and Last Action Hero, but McGinley does such a good job with his endless reserves of spleen it defines his future career (most notably Scrubs).


Swizzle, I’ve mentioned, and he’s fine; weirdly, he’s particularly good with a Ronald Reagan mask on. Make of that what you will. 


Petty had a flirtation with stardom following Break, and its entirely understandable as who wouldn’t be smitten with her. It’s only in the later stages that Tyler is poorly used and becomes an object to be bartered with; early on she’s one of the more interesting characters, negotiating a curious middle line; she buys into Bodhi and is sort-of an honorary boy (the coding of her haircut), but she’s dismissive of their testosterone-fuelled antics. 


By the conclusion we don’t even know her fate; whether she’s spurned lying Keanu or stuck with him. It’s all about Johnny Utah (complete with unsubtle reversals of facial hair between him and Bodhi; “Still surf?”; “Every day”) and his weary Harry Callaghan-esque discarding of his badge. Also showing up are James Le Gros as the self-describing Roach, and Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis as one of the meth head surfers.


Kid in store: Surfing’s the source. It can change your life.

But however formidable the cast, it’s the action set pieces that make Point Break the legend it is. The script is pretty much bare bones, fashioned into something mediocre (as the remake will likely be) or otherwise based on the chops of its director. Bigelow had made a big splash with vampire western starring Aliens cast Near Dark a few years earlier (she was married to Cameron at this point, who exec produced both this and her subsequent Strange Days), following it with the so-so generic Blue Steel.


The first half of Point Break looks like something of an anomaly, given her subsequent career, as it’s the brightest and breeziest she’s ever been. Bigelow likes her dark subject matter, the more serious the better, and eschews the Hollywood mainstream. Everyone goes on about how much she should do a superhero blockbuster (there’s probably no one superior out there as an action director) but it isn’t her bag. Which is fine, it’s just a shame the territory she has settled into is that of antiseptic military/political movies that are only “deep” or “probing” by shallow Tinseltown standards (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty). She fully deserved that Oscar, but she should really ought to make more movies with more interesting subject matter.


Bodhi: Isn’t this the best feeling on Earth?

Bigelow’s ear and eye for the male milieu is particularly acute in Point Break, really getting the camaraderie and inclusiveness of the Ex-Presidents/surfing clique and why it would be such a lure to Johnny. She also palpably evokes the attraction of the surf, getting in there with the camera as the waves roll and catching the light of the Sun on storm riders. Point Break’s a gorgeous, seductive advertisement for the sport. The skydiving is fun, but it can’t beat the beauty with which the surf is captured; we spend 45 minutes before there’s a full-on action set piece involving our hero, but we’re not remotely bored by the extended introduction to Bodhi’s world.


Point Break is ever kinetic, though, an endorsement of the “adrenaline junkies” and the “banzai bullshit” that drive it. Even a confrontation with the hard nut surfers into “bad shit”, where Bodhi comes to Utah’s aid, is enervating. The first robbery by the Ex-Presidents is an expert, precisely choreographed affair, the kind of clear visual action storytelling we usually accustomed to from Michael Mann. Bigelow likes to keep her camera low and handheld, creating a sense of immediacy and tension, but there’s never the remotest chance of confusion of geography that is seen to go hand in hand with handheld.


The raid on the meth head surfers is a masterpiece of unforeseen developments (albeit the lawnmower is set up as instrumental to the bust going wrong and a crucial part of the fight that concludes it), including a naked surfer chick beating the shit out of Johnny. And it’s his first kill (“Paper targets until today, huh?”) It’s a sequence only topped by the aforementioned foot chase. If only 90% of action directors could take lessons from Bigelow, the genre would be in much better shape.


That scene is also a great example of a musician sensitive to the needs of the scene. Mark Isham follows the pursuit with an insistent but unintrusive beat, keeping up the urgency but not smothering the action. I’m not necessarily Isham’s biggest fan, but his work for Point Break is consistently superb; expansive and epic where it needs to be (there’s a sense of awe and majesty whenever the waves are on screen), joyous (the freefalling, and resultant camaraderie) and lush (the romantic moments with Tyler). The songs on the soundtrack are also complementary, with Concrete Blonde providing the romance, and a surprisingly decent cover of Smoke on the Water from Loudhouse accompanying a game of beach football.


Utah: People are dead. The ride is over.

So why remake Point Break? The only reason – aside presumably from the belief that the name has cachet enough to make cash, a dubious one – is to emphasise how good the original is, really (I know its been said The Fast and the Furious remade it already, but that connection is wholly inelegant in that it has none of Break’s sensibility and elegance). This is a movie cheeky enough to base its key deduction on a character pulling a mooner yet fully embraces the mythical pretensions of its subjects.


Nothing in the trailers for the new take looks witty or charismatic (Luke Bracey suggests a non-entity; whatever you may say about Keanu, he isn’t forgettable). The original didn’t set the box office alight (it earned less than double its budget stateside, which means it probably didn’t break even initially), although it was enough to cause recognition of a minor wave of Reeves star power, with the surprise success (critical and commercial) of Bogus Journey. Even at the time, anyone who had seen the picture knew just how good it was, though; it’s reputation swiftly overcame the tepid box office. Point Break isn’t a perfect movie (and its original title Riders on the Storm is vastly superior, but was nixed due to The Doors movie), but its action 100% is.



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