Growing up, one of the films I watched the most, along with the James Bond Franchise and Gone with the Wind, was Point Break. For my older brother, Point Break is a seminal film, and I’ve never been inclined to disagree with him. Point Break is like a time capsule for the early 1990s. It shows the beginnings of the disillusionment with the Reagan administration and the consumer driven existence of the 1980s. It’s a film that despite a fairly simple premise, asks some complex questions.
It’s also the film that made Keanu Reeves one of the most identifiable actors of the era, solidified by his later role in Speed. In the film, he plays a rookie FBI agent, the aptly named Johnny Utah, who, along with his grizzled and sardonic partner, is tasked with finding who is behind a series of bank robberies committed by men dressed as U.S. presidents. The search leads them to a close knit community of surfers, and Johnny must, both literally and figuratively, sink or swim in a subculture that is entirely alien to him and the culture of the previous decade.
Although Point Break is often cited as one of the most masculinely orientated action films made in the 1990s, it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and the film shows, along with Near Dark, that she is one of the foremost trailblazers in highlighting the impressive capabilities of female directors, even more so because she made such a well crafted film in a male dominated genre. The pace of Point Break is indeed neck breaking, not giving the viewer a moment to relax or become comfortable. It shows the dangers of an excess in both authority and anarchy, pitting two characters against each other who seem entirely different, and revealing how even “freedom” comes with a price tag.
The screenplay by W. Peter lliff, is one that breaks away from the conventions of the 1980s action film. Johnny Utah becomes entirely embroiled in the world of those he is supposed to be bringing to book, and unlike other action heroes, he isn’t really ever in control of the situation. Even in the end, when he seemingly has his man, and he’s finally become the wisened agent that his partner warned him he would become, he defies expectations and walks away from the authority structure he was once so dedicated to. And this isn’t done in a way that is heavy on tropes or genre expectations, he’s just done. There is no real triumph in any of it.
Patrick Swayze’s performance in the film is probably the one that receives the most praise, and understandably so, because he delivers a performance that is in major contrast to anything he’d done before or would do in his succeeding films. As Bohdi, he is dangerous, selfish and quite clearly insane. But he shows why men like Bohdi manage to get people to believe in them and sacrifice themselves for them. Swayze shows the dangerously seductive powers of a character who seems unfettered by social expectations, but reveals himself to be as tethered as anyone else in the end.
However, Keanu Reeves shows his own talents in the role of Johnny Utah. He brings the right kind of naivety and freshness to the role, making himself entirely believable as an ex-high school jock made golden boy recruit of the FBI. And his transformation into a disillusioned agent as the film goes on, is both subtle and impressive. I think that his acting in the final scene opposite Patrick Swayze is particularly impressive. Neither actor overdoes it or spoils the tense atmosphere of the scene. Johnny is no longer desiring of promotion in the bureau, all he wants is to close out a case that cost him a lot personally. Keanu conveys this largely through body language, and the way he delivers the final line of the film “He’s not coming back”, is endlessly quotable. In fact, my brother and I routinely randomly quote said line to this day.
There’s a reason that Point Break had such a massive cultural impact. It was made at the right time and about the right thing. It’s a film that still speaks to the dangers of a disillusioned youth and the unchanging reality that those in power, will never truly be able to control or understand those who do not yield to its pressures. But it’s also a film that warns against thinking yourself above others, and also above all of societies rules and safeguards.
This is my belated contribution to the Luso World Cinema Blogathon which was hosted by Beth of Spellbound by Movies andLê of Crítica Retrô. Please visit their blogs to see more posts that celebrate entertainers who share this wonderful cultural lineage.