Kathryn Bigelow’s blockbuster action flick from 1991 screens at the Memorial Union Terrace on July 18.
A very-’90s blend of extreme sports, crime movie tropes, and new-age spirituality, Point Break (1991) functions as both an over-the-top action movie and a playful subversion of the genre.
A master of on-screen violence and tension, director Kathryn Bigelow transforms a B-movie cops-and-robbers plot into a meticulously crafted thrillride full of personal trademarks. Catch Point Break as part of WUD Film’s Lakeside Cinema series of crowd-pleasing summer favorites at the Memorial Union Terrace on Monday, July 18, at 9 p.m.
Keanu Reeves stars as rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah, who gets paired up with grizzled vet Angelo Pappas (a perfectly cast Gary Busey) to catch a gang of bank robbers known as The Ex-Presidents in Los Angeles. Disguised in rubber masks of Presidents Nixon, Carter, Johnson, and Reagan, the gang is notorious for their efficiency and prolificness. Convinced by Pappas’ theory that the robbers are surfers, Utah goes undercover posing as a lawyer-turned-neophyte surfer. After conning surfing instructor Tyler (Lori Petty) into giving him lessons, he gets introduced to her sometimes-lover Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and his band of thrill-seeking surfers.
Embracing a surfer dude approach to Zen concepts, Bodhi and his followers follow the waves in search of “the ultimate ride.” Bodhi sees a kindred spirit in Utah, a former college football star, and Johnny soon goes to parties at Bodhi’s house and joins him on late-night surfing expeditions. Meanwhile, Utah and Pappas have honed in on a violent gang of Nazi surfers as prime suspects, but a botched raid reveals they’re drug dealers, not bank robbers. Watching Bodhi and his crew ride the waves at dawn, Johnny realizes the band of adventurers he’s joined are the exact criminals he’s trying to catch. The remaining half of the film turns into an extended game of cat-and-mouse as Johnny and Bodhi discover that they’re unable to kill each other despite being on opposite sides of the law.
Bigelow first became interested in filmmaking as a member of the New York City conceptual art scene in the mid-1970s. Frustrated by the elitism of the art world, she was drawn to film as a popular medium that could cross class boundaries. Bigelow cites seeing a double bill of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets (1973) as her catalyst to pursue filmmaking, and it’s easy to see their influence in both her approach to depicting violence as well as how she uses camera movement and editing to build momentum and suspend time. Her first short film, The Set-Up (1978), made as part of her MFA at Columbia, depicts two men beating each other up while academic narrators dryly deconstruct the on-screen violence. While she has dismissed it as being overly analytical, The Set-Up began Bigelow’s career-spanning exploration of on-screen violence and audiences’ fascination with it.
Kinetic and visceral, Bigelow’s films immerse the viewer in the tense on-screen action using inventive camera methods. While most directors would have shot Point Break‘s iconic skydiving scene with greenscreens and wide shots of stunt doubles, Bigelow developed a special camera rig to allow the camera crew to jump alongside the actors. Filming Reeves and Swayze actually falling through the air gives the scene a palpable weight, as Johnny and Bodhi take a break from being adversaries to enjoy the sublime thrill of freefall. Similarly, Bigelow modified a lightweight Steadicam for a sequence where Johnny chases Bodhi through narrow back alleys, yards, and houses, giving the viewer a riveting, maze-like viewpoint. The night surfing scenes are shot close up and slowed down to emphasize Johnny becoming admitted into the surfers’ world, while the robbery and chase scenes use fast-cut editing and constantly moving camerawork to disorient and build tension.
Like Bigelow’s other early films, Point Break conforms to genre conventions while also deconstructing them. Her debut feature, The Loveless (1982), co-directed with Monty Montgomery, strips the 1950s biker movie down to a minimalist narrative of leather jackets and switchblades. Near Dark (1987) recontextualizes the vampire movie within Western genre conventions, while Blue Steel (1990) inverts the gender roles of a psychological police thriller to chilling effect.
Point Break starts off conforming to the conventions of a hyper-masculine police action movie—snappy dialogue and the uptight asshole chief (John C. McGinley)—but as the story progresses, Bigelow’s recurring themes of violence and male bonding take over. Many film critics have pointed out Point Break’s homoerotic subtext—Utah and Bodhi’s smoldering bromance becomes the film’s driving force. From the first moment Johnny sees Bodhi surfing, Bigelow frames the pair as objects of desire. Even as Johnny and Tyler’s relationship develops, she’s essentially a third wheel in Johnny and Bodhi’s macho courtship.
While Point Break was Bigelow’s biggest box-office success, the commercial failure of her next film, the ambitious sci-fi noir Strange Days (1995), sent her into a decade-long career freefall. Bigelow’s comeback with The Hurt Locker (2008), which earned her an Academy Award for best director, began a second, more prestigious chapter of her career. While Bigelow hasn’t returned to genre film, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Detroit (2017) all show a refinement and maturity of the themes that had run through Bigelow’s earlier films—sustained tension, stylized violence, and the rituals of male bonding. While those films are expertly crafted and nerve-wracking, sometimes you’re just in the mood for a popcorn movie, and Point Break delivers all of Bigelow’s signature style in a big, loud, and thoroughly enjoyable spectacle.