Nothing says summer quite like surfing waves and robbing banks with the boys!
Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break is about a quarterback punk called Johnny Utah. He goes undercover as a surf bro under the suspicion that a gang of surfers are responsible for a string of bank heists across Southern Cali.
Point Break is one of my all-time favorite action films. I watch it at the start of every summer to welcome the warm weather, the good vibes, and the senoritas and margaritas. I know, I know, some of you might think it’s far fetched to label Point Break as an all-time favorite. The plot is ridiculous, there’s too much cheese on the pizza, and watching Keanu Reeves act is about as exciting as walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes. These are all valid criticisms, but there has to be something more to this cult classic than simply being a “cheesy fun” action flick. So sit back, grab a meatball sub and make it two because we’re about to tear into the wave that is Point Break!
The cinematography is good. Really good! Just like that ugly girl who you didn’t realize was hot until after high school, Point Break’s cinematography had me giving it a double take. I’d never heard of Donald Peterman but apparently he was the cinematographer for classics like How the Grinch Stole Christmas so I gotta give him a fist bump for that one. Point Break’s cinematography is never showy but if you look hard enough, you’re guaranteed to find more than a few inspired moments. For anyone who’s due for a rewatch of Point Break, definitely take a closer look at the cinematography because there are quite a few tricks sprinkled throughout and one of those tricks happens to be a long-take tracking shot.
Before you had Birdman or True Detective playing around with long-take tracking shots, Point Break was that hipster kid who was doing before it was cool. It doesn’t happen during any action sequence, but instead, it happens right at the start of the film when Utah’s getting a tour of the FBI precinct. On Utah’s first day on the job, he’s getting a tour by his commanding officer, Agent Harp and as the camera’s following them around, it’s also capturing the energy, geography, and the overall atmosphere of the precinct. It’s just a typical day at the office for most of these nameless characters but because we’re following Johnny Boy’s first day on the job, it feels like a fish out of water scenario where everything feels claustrophobic and overwhelming. It might seem superfluous to have a long-take during a sequence like this with no action in it, but it’s effective in addressing where Utah is at the start of the film and it informs us that just like the audience, Utah is in a whole new world.
The cinematography is only as good as its editing and the sequences in Point Break flow so well because of how strong its editing is. One of my favorite moments is the sequence between Johnny and Tyler at the shrimp and fries restaurant. At the start of the film, Johnny don’t surf! If he’s going undercover as a surfer, the least he could do is look believable on a surfboard and this is when he sets his sights on Tyler, a native of the California area. Thinking that he’s nothing more than a yuppie poser, Tyler initially refuses. At the start of the sequence, the camera’s constantly cutting back and forth between Johnny and Tyler which indicates that these characters aren’t meeting each other on equal terms.
However, once Johnny starts giving his monologue about his parents, the camera adjusts a little bit as Johnny leans over the register counter to meet Tyler at eye level. At this point, the camera lingers on Johnny long enough before it cuts back to Tyler. The cuts aren’t as constant as they were at the start of the sequence which now indicates that Johnny’s slowly winning Tyler over. Each time the camera cuts back to Tyler’s gorgeous green eyes it further lowers her guard until she finally agrees to being his surfing teacher. These two sequences work not only because of the cinematography and editing but also because of the performances and that takes us to our next point.
Keanu Reeves made a name for himself throughout the 90’s as an action hero. On the surface, he fits the bill: he’s tall, he’s handsome, and he oozes cool. Reeves was unlike any other action star in the past decade because while he wasn’t built like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, Reeves had a vulnerability that drew you in. That being said, he’s pretty bland in Point Break, but that’s alright, because the cast surrounding him do a great job in complementing his performance. Let’s talk about the three major characters and what they represent to both Johnny and the overall themes of Point Break.
First to bat is Johnny’s partner Agent Pappas played by Gary Busey. No one but Gary Busey could make such a bizarre character like Pappas so likable. Despite being the laughing stock of the FBI and constantly belittled by his superiors, Pappas is the one who ends up being correct about the Ex-Presidents being surfers. He’s also the one who delivers some of the best quotes in the entire movie. Find a more quotable line than, “UTAH, get me two!” As a buddy duo, Pappas and Utah are great together, but Pappas also represents what Johnny could end up becoming further down the line. Utah starts the film as the fresh-faced hotshot while Pappas is the has-been who’s been chewed up and spit out by the system he works for. Pappas is old enough to see the reward for all his years of service at the FBI but Utah thinks being an agent is the thrill of a lifetime. That is, until he meets Bodhi.
Next up, we have big daddy Bodhi, the real star of Point Break! Our introduction to Bodhi is through Johnny’s eyes and it’s love at first sight. It’s a cool slow-motion shot that would make Zack Snyder cream his pants and it’s also an effective way to establish the mythos that is Bodhisattva. Bodhi is everything that Johnny wants to be: he’s a leader, he’s charismatic, and he’s free from the confines of society. Essentially, Bodhi’s got a case of “stick-it-to-da-man-niosis.” Compare that to Johnny who’s stoic, works for The Man, and is constantly berated and belittled by the very system he works for. Johnny’s interest in Bodhi stems from the fact that he knows he could end up like Pappas unless he breaks free and Bodhi is the guy who shows Johnny what really freedom can be like. On first viewing, Bodhi’s lifestyle is exciting and liberating, but in the end, it’s his recklessness that leads to his undoing as well as the undoing of his crew. Bodhi might not be a slave to society, but he’s a slave to the adrenaline rush and it’s obvious that Kathryn Bigelow isn’t interested in endorsing it, but in deconstructing it. Case in point: Tyler.
I initially thought this was a thankless role, but thematically speaking, Lori Petty’s Tyler is the one who holds this whole film together. She’s the only character who sees past Bodhi’s monologues of enlightenment as merely the ravings of an extremist and she openly calls him out on it. For a majority of the film, Johnny’s too dumb to see how insane Bodhi actually is but Tyler warns him that Bodhi will take Johnny to the edge and she ends up being right the whole time. Kathryn Bigelow uses Tyler as a surrogate to critique the male ego and its desire for danger to prove how masculine it is. In the end, it’s ultimately Tyler who shows Johnny the illusion of Bodhi’s life and the danger it brings.
No action film is complete without, you know, good action and Point Break has a lot of sweet action. We’ve got not one, but TWO skydiving sequences, we’ve got surfing, and we’ve got bank robberies. The scale of the action is breathtaking and the range of the action is vast, but the reason it’s so effective is because it involves characters you actually like. Too many modern action films seem to place scale first and character second, but all the reps for Kathryn Bigelow who gives us the foreplay before thrusting us into the action. There are so many moments in Point Break that are just characters hanging out and vibing with each other and then once the action kicks in, you’re hooked because the character dynamics have already been set up.
One of the most iconic moments in the whole movie is the foot chase between Johnny and Bodhi. It’s iconic for a lot of reasons: it’s well-paced, it’s involved, and the resolution is effective even if it’s a bit silly. The camera does a great job of following both characters as they try to outpace the other and as the camera’s trying to keep up with both characters, there’s a tangible adrenaline rush that leaps off the screen. The chase is effective not only as an action set piece but also in furthering the plot. Since the start of the film, we see how diligent Johnny is to catching the bad guy, but now that it comes down to it, is he really willing to follow through with it? Up until this point, Johnny and Bodhi have been developing a bit of a bromance and now that Johnny has Bodhi at gunpoint, he must ultimately decide between his new friendship or his obligations as an FBI agent. For an action film that people enjoy to mock, there’s quite a bit of layers here.
Speaking of adrenaline rushes, the mounting tension during the house raid sequence is an underrated banger! Confident that they’ve found their suspects, Utah and Pappas organize a raid on the Red Hot Chili Peppers residence. In total, it’s a ten minute sequence, but half of that time is used to set up locations, key players, and Mcguffins. No one but Utah sees that the suspects are armed but before he can convey that information on the walkie talkie, a lawnmower drowns out the message which leaves Pappas in danger. Those first five minutes tell us that we’re in for some trouble and once it starts, it doesn’t let up! It’s a well done action sequence that leads to the ultimate punchline: the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the wrong guys. These are two action set pieces differ wildly from each other but they all deliver the same amount of thrills and dramatic tension.
Point Break is a masterclass in action filmmaking and is a wonderful time capsule for a decade of action films that seem to be all but extinct. The characters are defined, the cinematography has purpose, and the action moves the story forward while always managing to stay exciting and unique. Under lesser hands, this could have been an action film too silly to be taken seriously, but the amount of craft and talent that was put into this film deserves to be rewarded. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s easy to look past them when every other aspect of the film falls into place. Point Break makes its moves in silence and despite never drawing attention to itself, it leaves just enough there for those who truly look for its greatness.