AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 122 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Johnny Utah is a former American football quarterback and rookie FBI Agent who is assigned to assist experienced agent and veteran Angelo Pappas in investigating a string of bank robberies by the “Ex-Presidents”, a gang of robbers who wear face-masks depicting US presidents to disguise their true identities. They only raid the cash drawers in the banks that they rob – never going for the vault – and are always out within 90 seconds. Pappas has a theory that the criminals are surfers, so Utah goes undercover to infiltrate the surfing community. He concocts a story to persuade orphaned surfer Tyler Endicott to teach him to surf, and through her meets Bodhi, the charismatic leader of a gang of surfers. Utah finds himself increasingly drawn to the surfers’ adrenaline-charged lifestyle, Bodhi’s philosophies, and Tyler, but also becomes convinced that they could be the Ex-Presidents….
I don’t think Point Break was loved that much when it came out – it made money but wasn’t a huge hit, while the critics mostly looked down on it as a dumb action movie even more ridiculous than most – but its reputation seemed to greatly increase quite quickly and it soon garnered a huge following so that it’s now one of the most loved action films of the 90’s. The impending remake [being a fan of the original, I know that I shouldn’t want to see the new version out of principal, and I know that our Webmistress Bat, also a fan, has adopted that viewpoint, but I will go and see it, if only so I can spend six paragraphs slating it] encouraged me to check out the original again, though it wasn’t necessary to prove what a great example of the testosterone-filled action movie it is, a film which at times does what the very best films in its genre do – attempt to push action aesthetics so that what we end up watching is a beautiful of ballet of motion – with at least two action scenes which remain amongst the best in American cinema. It’s also fabulous to look at, its two main stars have terrific chemistry together, while there’s also some attempt at a philosophical element which for me gives it some depth, though the film is also very very funny, perfectly pitched between send-up and parody. Watching it again, I still can’t decide if screenwriter W. Peter Iliff and director Kathryn Bigelow are making fun of some aspects of the story and its characters, or celebrating them, but perhaps the two had opposing views, which makes it an interesting mix. In any case, I still remember what an incredible adrenaline rush it was at the cinema back in 1991.
The film took four years to come to the screen. The original story and script for it actually originally featured skateboarding rather than surfing, while it nearly started filming as Johnny Utah with Ridley Scott directing, and Matthew Broderick and James Garner starring. The aborted project was restarted four years later, with Val Kilmer being offered the role of Utah, and Johnny Depp and Charlie Sheen auditioning for it, until Keanu Reeves and then Patrick Swayze were cast in a film that, for a while, was then called Riders On The Storm. Reportedly director Kathryn Bigelow and her then-hubby James Cameron made alterations to the script, even after filming had commenced. Reeves, Swayze and Lori Petty [who had apparently never been in the ocean in her life] trained for two months with former world class professional surfer Dennis Jarvis. Reeves took up surfing as a hobby, while Swayze, despite cracking four of his ribs, was so good he ended up not requiring stunt doubles for most of his scenes, and he also did the skydiving sequences all himself. Point Break lost a few minor scenes, mostly more of Utah in the water, before being released into cinemas. To attain a ‘15’ certificate, 22 seconds of violence [mostly during the FBI attack on the house], was cut and some swearing toned down, though the uncut ‘18’ rated version would now easily get passed as a ‘15’ certificate film these days. The basic plot has been recycled several times since, most notably in Drop Zone and The Fast And The Furious.
Now, though I didn’t read any reviews of Point Break shortly before writing this review, I do remember reading some a while back and came across much trouncing of the script. It does indeed contain some absurdities, including what seems like no awareness of FBI procedure whatsoever, [despite Reeves having been allowed to observe FBI agents at work] but they only truly gall if you decide to take the film too seriously, which I believe is a mistake, while I genuinely believe, though I don’t know how many readers will agree with me, that Iliff’s script is actually very good for the kind of goofy, ‘over the top but with a bit of depth if you want it’, film that Point Break is trying to be. For a start, it’s packed with funny lines, especially in the early scenes of Utah beginning his investigation, which cackle with chucklesome sentences well delivered and benefit immensely from a great little comic performance from John McGinley as his boss Ben Harp, who doesn’t take kindly to this upstart who is: “Young, dumb and full of cum”, while the perennially underrated and under-utilised Gary Busey as Angela Pappas, also proves very good at this sort of thing. Meanwhile the first hint of depth is in a scene where Utah and Pappas shout at each other and Utah cries out: “Feels good, doesn’t it?” Utah may seem to be the likeable hero, but he’s actually a bit of a control freak and isn’t really any saner than the supposed bad guys. It’s no wonder that, when he infiltrates the gang which he suspects is doing all these robberies, he finds himself becoming immersed in surfer culture and getting a thrill and a release from surfing far more than he anticipated. It’s also small wonder that he forms a bond with Bodhi, seemingly the head guy of the group concerned.
There is of course a girl, called Tyler, whom Utah uses for the purposes of his mission, but the real romance in the film is the bromance between Utah and Bodhi, who releases daredevil tendencies in Utah that were probably just brewing beneath the surface. I think it’s intentional that Bigelow doesn’t show a full love scene between Utah and Tyler, or that she’s not with Utah at the end. Hell, I’m not sure if Utah ever really falls for her, and I’m not sure that Utah is actually a very nice person at all, nor do I think he finishes the film with any sort of closure. This is one of the many great things about this film – there’s depth and philosophy if you want it, with Bodhi a virtual walking fortune cookie at times, and many of the characters living the way they do because it’s the best way of expressing their beliefs and views on life – but this stuff is not constantly shoved up your nose so the film becomes pretentious, and you can ignore it if you want and just enjoy the film for its greatness as a thrill ride. The first couple of times I saw this movie, I found some of the scenes in the first third a little draggy, especially all this stuff about learning to surf, partly because I had, and still have, little interest in surfing despite my undying love for Big Wednesday, but these bits are actually necessary to show the fulfilment that Utah is beginning to feel for perhaps the very first time in his life.
It’s sheer genius the way the action begins in relatively low key fashion – a short bruising brawl here, a brief bout of brutal gunplay there – and is then gradually escalated in scale throughout much of the rest of the movie. A lengthy foot chase where the camera follows pursued and pursuer through various houses remains one of the best of its kind, while the main skydiving sequence aims for a more serene feel, the stunning photography, clever editing [where you really can’t really see the joins], and beautiful music [Mark Isham does a great job throughout the movie] combining to create a true feel of awe. I still recall how amazing this bit was in the cinema. A skydiving fight later on outdoes the one in Moonraker. By contrast, the climactic confrontation is low-key and aims for a more spiritual nature, but all this stuff holds up brilliantly today. In fact, it seems better than much of what you see today, because Howard E. Smith’s editing is often fast but not overly so, while Donald Peterman’s cinematography is smooth [just imagine how full of shakycam the foot chase would probably be if shot today] and gives the whole film a lovely sheen, almost pre-Michael Bay in fashion, without going overboard. Kathryn Bigelow well and truly beats most of the boys at their own game, and I do wish that she’d do another film in the style of Point Break. I reckon her additions to the screenplay were quite considerable, as her wry view seems to be all over this film. It struck me on this particular viewing how hilariously incompetent all the good guys, compared to the bad guys, are, especially Utah.
Though he gave surprisingly good performances last year in Knock Knock and John Wick, proving that he has improved a bit in recent years, Reeves is rarely much of an actor to speak of, and here he’s out acted by Swayze in every single one of their scenes together, but he gets by on sheer likeability. Swayze exudes tremendous charisma – I can’t decide if his best performance is here or in Road House – as a person who appears to be totally sane and totally insane at the same time. Watching Bodhi’s early scenes, Swayze gives Reeves such knowing looks that I always wonder if Bodhi knows that Utah’s a cop right away but wants to see what he does and takes a liking to him. Lori Petty is an interestingly offbeat love interest for the time, outwardly tough but with a great deal of inner vulnerability, and as mentioned before, Busey and McGinley give excellent support. I guess it’s possible that what little credibility I have as a film reviewer may go out the window now that I’ve praised Point Break so much and am giving it such a high rating, but I genuinely believe that it’s a fantastic piece of pure entertainment which takes the viewer, as long as he or she is willing to get onboard, on a rollercoaster ride and leaves him or her shaken [in a good way], thrilled and even a bit inspired, if just for a moment, to maybe think about and look at life and the world in a different way.