Features and Columns · Movies

‘Point Break,’ the Bust That Began Keanu Reeves’s Action Career

Before he was Neo or John Wick, Keanu Reeves played against type in everyone’s favorite movie about bank-robbing surfers.
Point Break
20th Century Fox
By  · Published on May 17th, 2019

In the eyes of modern audiences, Point Break is a stone-cold classic. It’s Exhibit A that Kathryn Bigelow is a trailblazing talent and one of the best directors of the past two decades. It’s a broad swipe at New Age spiritualism and the hypocrisy of those who make their living exploiting others. It’s a baptism by fire for young star Keanu Reeves, now easily considered one of the best action stars of his (or any other) generation. But most importantly – and this is key – it persists as one of the most entertaining action movies in a decade dedicated to entertaining action movies. After all, filmmaker Edgar Wright effectively ensured its place in the action canon with 2007’s Hot Fuzz.

But as with many films, the reputation of Point Break has changed and evolved. Film critics across the country – in small-town newspapers and major city publications – found the film to be too goofy, too violent, and too shallow to be of any real, lasting merit. Bigelow’s film would finish the year as the 29th-highest-grossing movie of 1991, falling short of such noted blockbusters as My GirlWhat About Bob?, and The Prince of Tides. To understand why this movie was so underwhelming, we have to explore some of the narratives and themes that played into the film’s contemporary reception.

Given the dearth of female directors forever in 1991, much was made of Bigelow’s role behind the camera. Some comments – including several favorable references to Bigelow’s work on Near Dark – suggest that hers was a Hollywood star on the rise, but more critics portrayed her as a filmmaker more interested in style over substance (“She shoots images and sequences, not movies,” sneered Los Angeles Daily News writer Tom Jacobs). Some even suggested that Bigelow was exploiting her female characters, using the kidnapping of Tyler and the presence of a nude female character – a naked female character that beats the everloving shit out of Johnny Utah, mind you – as proof that she was just as flawed as any male director. This seems aligned with the ridiculous assertion that Bigelow may have been overcompensating for her gender. “In Blue Steel, and now in Point Break,” wrote Gannett News Service critic Jack Garner, “she demonstrates an obvious desire to demonstrate that a woman can make a film as violent and visceral as any man.”

Yes, by 1991 standards, Point Break was quite the scandalous bit of multiplex gore. “[Bigelow’s] the directorial equivalent of a homicidal maniac,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel‘s Jay Boyar, “inexplicably drawn to frantic scenes of wild violence. Someone stop her before she kills again.”

On the other hand, even the film’s harshest critics grudgingly admitted that Point Break‘s skydiving scenes were impressive. The close-ups of Patrick Swayze‘s face as he falls still stand today as a reminder of the powerful effect of genre indexicality; in much the same way that today’s audiences thrill in seeing Tom Cruise plaster himself to the side of a jetliner, these stunts packed a punch for contemporary viewers. “Bigelow… has two skydiving sequences that would put the stunts in a James Bond film to shame,” wrote The Californian‘s Marshall Fine. Bruce Miller of the Sioux City Journal agreed. “When [Swayze’s] skydiving, the film is more artistic than even Bigelow could have imagined.”

Unsurprisingly, Reeves himself was also a focal point for criticism of the film. Coming on the heels of his breakout performance as Ted Logan, the actor’s newfound status as an action lead – a famously controversial casting decision that Bigelow strongly supported – put him on shaky ground with audiences. “[Reeves] lacks the athletism and bearing of a guy who passed on a chance at a pro football career,” argues Gannett News Service’s Jack Garner, who, as luck would have it, would later praise Reeves for bringing “believability on the playing field” as disgraced quarterback Shane Falco in 2000’s The Replacements. Others struggled with his understated style of emoting. “Reeves’ puppyish performance,” wrote Hartford Courant‘s Malcolm L. Johnson, “uneasily close to his dudehood in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, also is somewhat offputting.”

Some critics, though, were able to look beyond Point Break‘s B-movie trappings and see the important relationship at the film’s core. Much has been made over the years of the friendship-cum-romance between Johnny Utah and Bodie; their overt fascination with each ensures even the most bombastic action sequences are grounded in the sense of playful discovery. Critics did not miss a beat. “We do see enough, however, to realize that the real love story here is between Swayze and Reeves,” wrote Boston Globe critic Jay Carr,” and wonder why they bother trying to pretend that Lori Petty is Reeves’ love interest.” Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune found perhaps the best point of comparison for this relationship, noting that the central friendship resembled the “delirious romanticism” present in the Hong Kong films of director John Woo. “[Bigelow] doesn’t seem embarrassed by the homoeroticism inherent in the formula and even plays it up,” he wrote, “filming the physical confrontation between the two men… as violent variations on lovemaking.

Finally, there are the digs that some critics likely wish they had back. “Point Break is so muddled that it gives Problem Child 2 a serious run for its money as the year’s worst film,” wrote The Berkshire Eagle‘s Jeffrey Borak. “The most interesting thing about Point Break,” offered The Arizona Republic critic Bob Fenster, “is waiting to see whether it’s going to be stupider than it is boring or more boring than it is stupid.” Still, disliking the film is still probably a better legacy than missing the point. “This movie may carry New Age bumper stickers,” wrote San Francisco Examiner critic Michael Sragow, “but underneath it’s still a bloated gas-guzzler.” Too bad it never occurred to Sragow that the hypocrisy found between theology and theft was everything you needed to know.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)