Retro Review: Point Break (1991) Is Better Than Some Want To Admit

Last week, the trailer for the Point Break remake surfaced online, and it shows promise on some levels as the action expands to a global stage and the stunt work gets the typical CGI treatment. Some people were disgusted, but the overwhelming responses to said disgust were “hey, the original Point Break wasn’t that great anyway.” This preposterous stance seemed to gain traction in the hours and days after the new trailer hit, and it left me at a loss.

Kathryn Bigelow’s original Point Break is not only a fun and entertaining film, but one of the finest action films ever made. People who do support the film still do so with an asterisk: it’s good but not anything special. I disagree. Point Break was, and is, a special film in regards to its action filmmaking, perfect casting, and in the way it has infiltrated the fabric of pop culture. It’s legend has grown in the last twenty-four years, and to see it marginalized is a shame.

Point Break Reeves and Busey

Keanu Reeves, a sadly marginalized action star himself, plays the legendary Johnny Utah, a former college quarterback star turned FBI agent who is brought into the bank robbery center of the So-Cal Bureau. Utah’s task is to bring down “The Ex-Presidents,” a slam-bang team of robbers who wear rubber masks of former free-world leaders and are in and out of a bank in a flash. He is teamed up with Special Agent Pappas, played by Gary Busey, who has a theory that these ex-presidents are surfers. His theory generates chuckles from most of his peers, but Utah is game, and the two begin their investigation on the beaches of California.

Before long, Utah has infiltrated a tight-knit group of thrill seekers, led by Bodhi, a mystical adrenaline junkie played by Patrick Swayze in one of his finest roles. Bodhi lives for the rush and not much else, but he sees the spiritual side in his surfing and his addiction to the natural high. It is absolutely imperative that Swayze sells the mystic aspect of Bodhi, so when Utah is pulled into this world it is validated through Bodhi’s magnetism. What Utah doesn’t realize, but the audience does, is that Bodhi and his gang of renegades are the bank robbers.

Along the way, Utah’s loyalties begin to blur, and he romances Tyler, a groupie of Bodhi’s clan played by Lori Petty. Everything changes once Utah exposes himself as a Federal agent as he and Pappas try and stop a robbery. This leads us to one of the film’s signature action set pieces, a foot chase through the streets and homes of a neighborhood. The chase weaves in and out of alleyways and through living rooms with dizzying efficiency, and is one of the best of its kind:

Point Break lives on adrenaline, and Kathryn Bigelow understands this. Aside from this spectacular foot chase, the film has some awe-inspiring aerial scenes of the group skydiving, including one late in the film when Utah, in a fit of desperation, chases Bodhi in mid air by jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. The surfing scenes are sharp and intimate enough to buy into, and the typical action fare has a spatial intelligence which is rare these days. One scene in particular, the bust of a drug house full of violent thugs (including Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), has incredible ferocity on an intimate level.

From top to bottom, Point Break hits every intended note. Kathryn Bigelow is what makes the film work, because she never once takes the story lightly. A film about bank robbing surfers and an FBI agent named Johnny Utah could have easily fallen into farcical territory, therein ruining the texture of the action. Bigelow stays deadly serious, and it allows her actors to give everything to their roles. Had she made the entire thing an inside joke, even for a second, everything would have fallen apart.

Point Break Reeves and Swayze

The chemistry between Reeves and Swayze is undeniable. Reeves’ dry persona and dark features are a deliberate attempt to make him stand apart from the blonde, electric-eyed Bodhi. The best moments in their relationship come in the scenes following Utah’s exposure. When Bodhi shows up at his door to take him skydiving, everything has been laid out, and everyone knows who everyone is. And yet, the allure of Bodhi convinces Johnny that skydiving is a wise choice. It speaks to the power Bodhi holds over Utah, and these scenes are also the most perfectly tense scenes in the film. And any respectable action film deserves a respectable sidekick for our hero, and Busey’s Agent Pappas is a perfect mixture of comic relief, grizzled veteran wisdom, and reliability.

It seems like revisionist history to watch the new Point Break trailer and say to yourself that Bigelow’s original was some sort of throwaway summer popcorn flick, the equivalent of cake for dinner. It is much more than that when considering where it stands in the genre of pure action. The new film might be entertaining in its own right, but it will certainly be more homogenized than Bigelow’s vision, and it will never have that allure of the late, great Patrick Swayze.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.