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Point Break Revisited
Have you ever fired your gun up in the air and gone 'Ahh'?
Certain films capture your heart at 15, but how awkward and old-fashioned would they make you feel if you watched them with a teenager now? And what horrifying things might they reveal about the person you once were? Avoid embarrassment, and the waste of £1.49 in rental fees, by letting us take the risk on your behalf.
Point Break (1991)
Rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is assigned to the case of a prolific and professional group of bank robbers who disguise their identities with rubber masks of American presidents. Grizzled veteran Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) is convinced the criminals are surfers, and Utah learns how to surf so he can infiltrate the gang. Utah loves the gang’s extreme sports lifestyle and falls under the sway(ze) of their charismatic leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), but in the end duty trumps bro-mance and Utah gets his man.
It does not come as a surprise to learn that by the time shooting started Point Break had been circulating in Hollywood for a while, and was originally going to be directed by Ridley Scott in the mid-’80s. It feels very much like a high-concept, goofy ‘80s action movie that has strayed into the ‘90s (pace Reeves’s other big break, Speed, in 1994). In 1992 - the year after Point Break was released - Reservoir Dogs came out, and American indie cinema exploded.
It’s noticeable how out of place Reeves seems in this role, a Gen Xer in the kind of movie that might have originally suited a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone. Busey - who had starred in prime Boomer Vietnam surfing drama Big Wednesday (1978) and in prime dumb ‘80s action movie Lethal Weapon (1987) - seems much more at home with this material, big and broad and busy.
Although the early ‘90s gave us our first sight of Keanu Reeves, action hero, he found his true calling right at the end of the decade in The Matrix (1999). Point Break was the end of the line for the high-concept, lowbrow ‘80s action flick; The Matrix was the start of something completely different. Its Hong-Kong-influenced, special-effects-enhanced trajectory points directly to today’s weightless MCU superhero action movies.
Catching The Metropolitan every Saturday morning is like riding a bodacious Point Break across the surge of culture. Only you can do it lying in bed. For free.
Although the script had been around for several years at this point - no doubt titivated and torn apart by each successive producer and star - director Kathryn Bigelow and her then-husband James Cameron decided that they needed to work on it too. You can certainly feel James Cameron’s heavy typing hand all over it; the man has an unerring sense for echt-Hollywood ‘80s popcorn dialogue, all stupidly quotable and quotably stupid. Try as you might to forget the introduction of Keanu Reeves’ character as ‘Young, dumb and full of cum’, you never will. It has the awful, undeniable draw of driving past a car crash, simultaneously memorable and regrettable.
Also, Lori Petty’s character Tyler, the woman who teaches Reeve’s Johnny to surf and inducts him into the beach bum lifestyle, starts out as a full-rounded character but by the end is reduced to little more than a plot token to be passed back and forth between the bros.
We’re hardly the first people to note that Kathryn Bigelow is quite good at film directing. Among all the surfing and skydiving and armed robbery there is a superlative bit of running as, right in the middle of the film, Reeves pursues Swayze, disguised in a Ronald Reagan mask, on foot through a series of suburban houses and back gardens. It is one of the great cinema chase scenes, up there with Friedkin’s car and elevated train chase from The French Connection (1971) or Peter Yates’s car chase in Bullitt (1968). With both of these it shares the legacy of practical film-making in which a sense of physical geography, clear sequence of action and a rhythm of montage are paramount. At every point in the chase we know precisely who’s where and what they’re doing. It also shows us both the closeness of Utah and Bodhi and the distance between them, both physically and morally.
And it ends with Keanu firing his gun up into the air and going ‘Ahh!’.
Can we show the kids?
Well, the older kids, maybe - although the only real reason to do this would be to make sure they get some of the jokes in Edgar Wright’s far, far superior Hot Fuzz (2007)
After all, the running fence-jumping joke that makes an appearance in all the Cornetto films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) is a direct reference to the foot chase sequence in Point Break.
Is it as good as you remember?
It’s as stupid as I remember.
Although what The Metropolitan remembers Point Break for is not the movie itself, but rather this cover of the ‘90s culture review magazine The Modern Review:
The Modern Review was a magazine of ‘low culture for high brows’ and a big influence on us starting The Metropolitan in the first place; it put a marker down for the Gen X insistence on taking stupid cultural artefacts entirely seriously, and not being wholly tongue in cheek about it.
In the piece in question Polly Frost writes about how Keanu Reeves appears to be a being purely of cinema: a physical beauty with no physical presence, an actor without artifice, existing solely to be looked at. This is also what Point Break is: an extruded product of the Hollywood entertainment system, to be viewed, rented, referenced and forgotten. It is not bland, but its flavours are artificial; it is entertaining but not enlightening; it is frequently disappointing but annoyingly memorable. It is precisely the kind of mass-produced mass entertainment that says more about its time and culture than any thoughtful work of art or piece of art school weirdness.
It captures perfectly the Bush-era twilight following the Reagan dawn, a moment when those high ‘80s, high camp Hollywood certainties were starting to look too brash and idiotic. Keanu is a stoned slacker surfing across the surface of a roaring, cocaine-‘80s action movie. A ‘point break’ is an incoming wave that breaks across an outcrop, far out to sea from the main beach; it creates the perfect circumstances for a long surf ride into the shore or, in this case, a long cultural ride on Gen X indie art.
1991 was the year that Nevermind came out and the punk underground went mainstream; it was the true beginnings of what Thomas Frank in The Baffler called ‘the commodification of dissent’. In the way Point Break co-opts extreme sports aesthetics into a conventional cop thriller, you can begin to glimpse the way that alternative culture would drive mass entertainment throughout the ‘90s.
Of course, this dynamic can feed back the other way. The other thing that Point Break calls to mind - for at least one Metropolitan editor - is the song ‘My Own Private Patrick Swayze’ by ‘90s band The Male Nurse . And has there ever been a better articulation of the joys of owning a two-foot high Patrick Swayze?
No, no there hasn’t.
For slightly less histrionic early ‘90s policing, how about a nice gentle cruise around Oxford in Inspector Morse’s Jag?