The Transcendent Masculinity of Point Break

By  · Published on July 12th, 2016

“I Caught My First Tube Today . . . Sir.”

Shortly after undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah befriends charismatic surfing bank robber Bodhi (“That’s Bodhi . . . they call him Bodhisattva”) in Point Break, a group consisting mostly of Bodhi’s bank heist crew, Johnny, and their various romantic partners sit around a fire while Bodhi regales the group with a tale of the “fifty-year storm,” a quasi-mythical weather event that every half century yields the best waves for surfing anyone has ever seen. In the scene, Patrick Swayze, essaying the role of Bodhi, pitches his voice exactly at the intersection of awed wonder, stoner/surfer drawl, and evangelical bullshit. It is Point Break’s most explicit moment of satori, where it is revealed to be, at once, an action movie about surfing bank robbers, and the greatest possible action movie about surfing bank robbers.

It’s been twenty-five years, to the day, since Point Break’s release. A quarter century. The movie is now the age Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah is when flatly mocked for being old in a surf shop. I stress this solely as a means of establishing that more than enough time has passed for the honorific “classic” to be bestowed, which is fortunate because that is exactly the intent of this piece. Point Break is a great film, a relentlessly, indefatigably entertaining film, an engine for exactly the level of adrenaline-fueled nirvana that it depicts. It would be some time before Kathryn Bigelow’s skill would be fully recognized, but it’s all there. On the page Point Break – previously Johnny Utah, and then Riders on the Storm in time-honored “shit, I can’t think of a title, let’s just name it after a good song that barely has anything to do with the movie” tradition – is a competent policier very much in step with its late-80s/early 90s peers, in ways both good and bad, that rambles a bit before regaining its footing at the concluding act. What Bigelow brings to the table here is not radical technique, but a full and vivid understanding of cop/action cinematic language, and a unique perspective on the genre, if not literally in terms of camera angles, certainly in the figurative sense of what her lens sees.

The most striking aspect to Point Break, apropos of that last point, is its depiction of maleness. Bigelow simultaneously cranks the testosterone level so far into the red the dial cracks and downplays traditional signifiers of maleness. Bodhi’s adrenaline junkie crew howling “I ain’t gonna live to see 30!” at the moon are (mostly) smooth-skinned, long-haired, physically idealized to the point of prettiness. And, of course, Johnny Utah, Keanu Reeves, is a being of pure light from a higher plane on which gender is water. Johnny’s relationship with Bodhi’s ex-flame Tyler (Lori Petty), which he establishes solely as a means of gaining access to the surfers’ inner circle, is never as persuasive as his connection with Bodhi. It’s not that Johnny and Tyler’s romantic connection lacks sincerity or poignance, but that the bond between Johnny and Bodhi – which, Tyler, as a mutual paramour, is part of whether she likes it or not – is that much more vivid. It’s the one that transcends the physical and reaches beyond.

Point Break’s special status as art derives from being more than what it is, although paradoxically (Ouroboreanly?) it achieves that state by being exactly what it is. This admittedly knotty proposition is explained best not by dwelling further on the sublime, barely-chaste Johnny-Bodhi dynamic but on Gary Busey. Assigned Johnny Utah as a partner, Busey’s long-suffering agent Angelo Pappas initially disdains the “quarterback punk” but in time-honored buddy-cop movie tradition the two develop a fraternal bond. Not honored by time, not by a long shot, is Busey’s broad, vulgar, “how in the hell did this guy pass his psychological evaluation?” turn as the veteran agent. Prone to vivid imagery (“Listen, you snot-nosed little shit! I was takin’ shrapnel in Khe Sanh when you were crappin’ in your hands and rubbin’ it on your face!” “Harp, I want to tell you something. I was in this bureau when you were still popping zits on your funny face and jerking off with the lingerie section of the Sears catalog.” “I’m so hungry I could eat the ass end out of a dead rhino . . .”) Pappas serves, somehow, as something of a link to normalcy for Johnny. Watching the byplay between Keanu and Busey is almost like watching two aliens from different planets – say, an asari and a krogan in Mass Effect – team up to catch bad guys. It’s the echt buddy-cop dynamic, both more than it is and yet/because it is wholly what it is.

An easily foreseeable counter to much of the above is that the years have dusted Point Break with the fog of nostalgia, and that all the time spent with it breeds the fondness expressed above. That may be. I still maintain that it’s a film heightened to a point far past absurdity into realms of wholly unearthly ecstasy. Additionally, I’ll propose that Point Break’s most notable legacy – not the ridiculous remake, I mean the Fast & Furious movies – is one to be proud of. That’s a matter for its own article, though, and in any case there was something uniquely perfect about pairing Keanu and Swayze, something only possible at that exact moment in time, that yielded a uniquely perfect result, a jewel in Kathryn Bigelow’s filmography as director. And, finally, it presents us, as all great works that lead seekers along the path to enlightenment, with a universally applicable koan: “Are we gonna jump or jerk off?” Indeed. Indeed.

Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all