Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow)
I challenge anyone to watch Point Break and not get a little moist over Keanu Reeves. From the second he appears, in the gorgeously designed title sequence, the man just looks so good. Reeves is FBI newbie Johnny Utah, ritualistically preparing for some target practice: stick of chewing gum in the mouth, one-handed rack of his pump shotgun. A tight t-shirt clings to Keanu’s perfectly sculpted chest – an aesthetic object with a heartbeat. It’s raining. It’s in slow motion. This is better than life. This is cinema.
Of course the success of this opening, and the film in general, is not really about Keanu: it’s about Kathryn. Bigelow that is. The only woman ever to win the best director Oscar, for The Hurt Locker in 2009, actually peaked 18 years earlier with this action masterwork. Yes, the plot is ridiculous and the characterization thin at best. But Point Break contains several action set pieces that are shot and cut like an absolute dream; heists, chases and shootouts become pure visceral cinema.
It’s summer in the City of Angels and a string of perfectly conceived bank jobs have been pulled by a gang calling themselves “The Ex-Presidents” – they wear masks of Nixon, Reagan etc. Seasoned FBI Agent Angelo Pappas suspects, for tenuous reasons at best, that the Ex-Presidents are a surfer gang, using the robberies to finance their counterculture lifestyle. Pappas encourages his new partner, “quarterback punk” Johnny Utah, to go undercover and infiltrate the surfing community. There Utah gets into some serious bromancing with enigmatic “surfer guru” Bodhi. Could he be the leader of the Ex-Presidents? Take one fucking guess. Yes, that’s really the plot. And, yes, the Fast and Furious franchise is a major league rip-off.
In another director’s hands Point Break would be just another over-the-top cops-and-robbers flick. Bigelow elevates the material through the force of her singular cinematic vision. The camera style is bold in the extreme and fully justifies the film’s tagline, “100% Pure Adrenaline”. When Johnny Utah is first shown round the FBI office Bigelow covers the action with a technically stunning long take; whip pans glance at people and objects, mirroring the character’s thrill and disorientation at his new world. If this were Brian De Palma or Alfonso Cuarón, the critics would be purring. There’s more –
The heist sequences sweat with energy and intensity. Remember this is 4 years before Heat, 17 years before The Dark Knight. (The Joker and his gang in their suits and novelty masks are strikingly reminiscent of the Ex-Presidents.)
An ill-fated FBI raid on a suspected gang’s hideout erupts into a heart-rate jacked shootout, climaxing in a moment of terrifying tension involving Utah and the spinning blades of a lawnmower.
And then there’s the standout set-piece, a seminal chase sequence: Utah chasing after Bodhi in the aftermath of a robbery. Bodhi leads him a merry dance through alleyways, gardens and strangers’ houses; at one point even chucking a dog at Utah. All of this is captured in glorious steadicam. It’s like Bourne but better; it doesn’t make you want to hurl. And it was fashioned over a decade earlier.
Today, as absurd as it might sound, I find it hard not to feel a touch nostalgic about Point Break. I was 12 when the film was first released to rent on video; 6 months later my brother and I negotiated to “go halves” on a widescreen retail copy. This is back when widescreen was a big deal. I swear that video (yes, I still watch it) looks better than any DVD or Blu-ray I own.
A note on the final scene: Is this Hollywood action film just a tiny bit subversive in its closing message? Like Clint Eastwood at the end of Dirty Harry, Reeves throws away his badge. However, their motivations (and, implicitly, their politics) are radically different. Harry Callahan was a world-weary right winger, resigned to the fact that the pussy liberals in charge would never let him get the job done his way; i.e. break the law to bag the bad guys. Johnny Utah, on the other hand, knows a life chasing criminals is not for him; he’s has been transformed by Bodhi’s alternative worldview, captured in the surfing metaphor – it’s freedom, personal expression, a re-acquaintance with the natural world and more. Earlier in the movie Bodhi tells the other gang members, “This was never about money. It was about us against the system.” Utah isn’t going to start robbing banks, but he’s grown his hair long and rejected the life of a law enforcement official. “Still surfing?” Bodhi asks, having not seen Utah for months. “Every day.”