Point Break (1991), and the Subversion of Surfing.

Every now and then you have to ask yourself: “is this the hill I’m willing to die on?”. For me, whenever the topic of Kathryn Bigelow comes up, the hill I’m very happy to die on, is that she is one of the greatest action movie directors out there. Between this film, the underrated Strange Days, and the overrated The Hurt Locker, the one constant is that Bigelow has complete grasp over the camerawork and direction necessary for stunning action set-pieces. And out of these three that I’ve seen, Point Break instantly shot up to my favourite of her work that I’ve seen. It’s bold, it’s frenetic, and it’s homoerotic (basically everything Top Gun wishes it was). Opening with a striking juxtaposition of Keanu Reeves’s Johnny Utah expertly completing a shooting range course, while getting his skin-tight shirt drenched in rain (because of course it does), while Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi cuts through the expansive waves on his surfboard. Even in this opening scene alone, we’re told a lot of valuable information; both of these characters are thrill seekers, and experts in their own respective fields, the precision of Utah’s shooting skills and the expertise of Bodhi’s surfing, while creating this idea of skill, also contrast each characters sensibilities: Bodhi, a more earthy, almost nomad sense of thrill, and Utah a more institutionalised sense of thrill through his entry into the FBI. All this we can draw from this opening scene alone, and it also mirrors the end of the film too in a powerful way. 

The plot of the film follows newly appointed Johnny Utah in the Bank Robbery division of the FBI, trying to track down the “Ex-Presidents”, an infamous group of Bank Robbers who disguise themselves as former presidents during their heists and are effective due to their strategy of taking only from the cash draws, and being in-and-out in 90 seconds. Johnny Utah and his partner, Angelo Pappas (played by, the ever eccentric, Gary Busey), discover that the bank robbers are surfers, and thus Utah infiltrates the scene to investigate and get closer to the group. 

The film uses its plot to subvert a lot of ideas; masculinity, morality, and politics. And all of these ideas are explored in really interesting ways; as Utah gets deeper into surfing, but also his relationship with the surfers, he starts to distance himself from his professional responsibilities; turning up late to raids, bringing his surfboard into the office, overhauling his wardrobe to match his new lifestyle. As all of this changes, so too does his morality alter, Utah and Bodhi become connected to one another due to their similar outlook on life, and both move from opposite ends of the moral spectrum to a grey middle area. And nothing conveys this more clearly than the famous chase sequence, which culminates in a moment of sacrifice, on many levels, where Reeves’s loyalties and morality is completely questioned. This morality is also subverted at other moments in the film, whether it’s in the raid on the neo-nazi surfers, which compromises a DEA operation, or when Reeves’s is forced to take part in a bank robbery under duress, which leads to the deaths of some police officers at the scene. While neither is explicitly Reeves’s fault, the film poses the question of culpability, and how stringent Utah is in his work and relationship to the surfers. All of these questions stem from the interesting and subversive relationship that Utah and Bodhi share, which in itself acts as a subversion from typical masculinity. As these two share their desires for chasing thrills, there’s a homoerotic tension that underlies these typically machismo moments. From the soft-spoken encouragement during the midnight surf session, the rugged masculinity of the football game, or the high-octane skydiving scene, all their moments together and tinged with this question of desire. While this homoeroticism isn’t on the surface of these scenes, it’s more a level of admiration & respect that emanates most clearly in these scenes, this pseudo-sexual tension bubbles carefully under the surface. Even in the typical heterosexual relationship in the film, this traditional formula is subverted by Bigelow, Tyler, an already androgynous name, doesn’t fit the stereotypical mould of Action movie love interests. She serves initially as a mentor to Johnny Utah, a clever twist on the typical mentor/mentee relationship; her short hair and athletic build is a stark contrast to contemporary examples within the genre. Finally, the use of presidential masks during their bank heists create not only some incredibly humorous scenes, such as Ronald Regan wielding a makeshift petrol-pump flamethrower, or the presidents telling their victims “don’t forget to vote” or Nixon announcing “I am not a crook” as they leave a robbery, but also the reasoning behind these attacks create a clever subversion of politics as their reasoning behind these stints isn’t about money, but about them “against the system, the system that kills the human spirit”. It’s a calculated use of imagery that pays off in abundance, cleverly calling out the legacy of specifically Reagan-era economics, but institutional problems as a whole.

There’s a very good reason that Point Break became such a success, both culturally and, to an extent, critically. It stands the test of time, with it’s powerfully dynamic action scenes that evoke a visceral reaction due to their supreme framing and cinematography. With extreme sequences such as the surfing and sky-diving, being filmed with expert camera control that makes you step back and question how the hell they managed to pull it off, while the slower more emotive scenes also being captured with all the tenderness and heart needed to match the emotive power of the action scenes, in all the right ways. While Reeves’s performance isn’t the best in his expansive filmography, I’d argue it’s one of the better Swayze performances I’ve seen, and the chemistry between the two is unparalleled. The technical elements of the film, as expected in a Bigelow film, is brilliant, Mark Isham’s music is fantastic, adding to every scene perfectly, and finally: Bigelow’s direction is superb, pulling all of these elements together into a fantastic complete overall package that hits on every level it’s trying to. 

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