“Feel what the wave is doing, then accept its energy.” —Patrick Swayze, Point Break
In my New Cult Canon piece on Road House and my colleague Noel Murray’s feature “The Way Of The Swayze,” we talked about the Zen-like appeal of Patrick Swayze, who was often cast (or to some degree cast himself) as a different kind of action hero, one who could kick ass in various disciplines—martial arts, surfing, soldiering, bouncing—but had a soft, sanguine quality that set him apart from other stars. With his long, sandy blonde hair and blue eyes, Swayze had a gentle, non-threatening air that made it safe for pre-adolescent girls to tape posters of him on the wall. But lest he come off as too feminized, Swayze could perish the thought swiftly, whether through actions (tearing out a man’s throat with one cobra strike, as in Road House) or words (on what he studied while earning a philosophy degree from NYU, from same: “Man’s search for faith—that sort of shit”). He was a man who developed a unique and consistent screen persona, which he managed with appropriately Swayze-esque discipline.
Kathryn Bigelow‘s Point Break is, for better or worse, an over-cranked vehicle for machismo in much the same way as her former husband (and Point Break producer) James Cameron’s earlier films—or Jerry Bruckheimer’s, for that matter. Bigelow has consistently obliterated every cliché or expectation about what female directors are supposed to be doing; her background as a painter gives the action in Point Break a lush, graphically exciting quality, especially in the surfing sequences, but whatever isn’t fueled by adrenaline is supplemented by testosterone. This is a film about men being men, pitting power against power, order against anarchy, and humanity against nature herself. Viewers only need to know the hero’s name, Johnny Utah, to understand what kind of movie they’re about to watch.
Yet the Swayze factor makes the difference. As Bodhi, the charismatic leader of a group of wave-chasing surfers/bank robbers, Swayze plays the most interesting character of his career—a bad guy with a code. Referred to as “the Ex-Presidents” for their habit of robbing banks in Reagan, Carter, LBJ, and Nixon masks, Swayze and the gang steal enough money to finance an endless summer that takes them to surf spots from California to Australia. True to a moniker that suggests Buddhist enlightenment, Bodhi carries himself with the same spirit of peaceful detachment no matter what he’s doing. He wields a gun, but believes in a non-violent approach to robbing banks and an unusually modest one, too, taking money only from the cash drawers while balking at the higher risk/reward of breaking into the vaults. Of course, he can’t guarantee a job won’t go wrong, but it’s as if the prospect of that happening has never crossed his mind. In the words of one FBI agent, the Ex-Presidents operate like “ghosts,” and Bodhi is the spectral entity responsible for their swiftness and grace. Still, it never once occurs to Bodhi that he’s doing something wrong—he’s philosophical without being reflective for a moment.
As Johnny Utah, Keanu Reeves is much less interesting, but as an actor whose most famous line-reading would later be that awed “whoa” from The Matrix, he’s the right man for the part. A former star quarterback for Ohio State University—the name is a play on football greats Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana—Johnny joins the FBI’s Robbery Division straight from Quantico, where he graduated near the top of his class. (Sidenote: Has there ever been a movie about a rookie FBI agent who barely made it through Quantico or graduated in the middle of the pack?) He teams up with Pappas, a grizzled veteran played by Gary Busey, who nearly steals the movie with his deranged one-liners. When an overeager Johnny proposes a new way to snare the elusive Ex-Presidents, Pappas puts him in his place, “Listen you snot-nose little shit, I was takin’ shrapnel in Khe Sanh when you were crappin’ in your hands and rubbin’ it on your face.”
Over the protests of their perpetually exasperated boss—a cop-movie cliché that John C. McGinley heroically resuscitates—Johnny and Pappas follow up on Pappas’ theory that the crooks are surfers and get the beach samples to prove it. A natural athlete, Johnny takes a few surfing lessons from Tyler (Lori Petty) and tries to infiltrate the scene, which is populated by ruffians who are viciously territorial about where they surf. Johnny mistakes another clan (which includes Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis, donning two rattails) for the Ex-Presidents and winds up getting in with Bodhi and the gang almost by accident. Before (and even after) he puts two and two together—via a telltale tan-line above someone’s ass, which is the first thing they teach you to look for at Quantico—Johnny finds himself drawn in by Bodhi’s seductive rhetoric.
The teaming of Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves is ideal: One a serene prophet, endlessly proselytizing; the other a blank slate, boundlessly impressionable. If the casting had been different, it might have been a stretch for a straight-arrow young G-man to be taken in by a blithe criminal, but the two have chemistry that transcends the law. Forget Lori Petty: Theirs is the real romance in Point Break, tender yet manly, with Bodhi gently leading Johnny into a life that’s antithetical to his beliefs. (When he’s brought along on a robbery, it’s hard not to think of Patty Hearst.) The film may end with Bodhi living out his Xtreme philosophy, but it also ends with him persuading Johnny that a carefree life on the margins, chasing waves and jumping out of airplanes, is the life for him. “If you want the ultimate, you’ve got to be willing to pay the ultimate price.” This has been a reading from The Gospel According To Swayze.
Unlike the vast majority of films in the New Cult Canon, Point Break doesn’t inspire a great deal of passion—it’s not that strange or distinctive (though it’s a little of both), and it doesn’t seem like a film for which you would grab a person by the lapels and demand he or she see. It’s more like a habit that’s stuck over the years, something that freezes the clicker when you land on it while lazily flipping channels. As big and loud as the action sequences can get at times, Point Break is a soothing experience: Swayze and Reeves remain mesmerizingly vacant, and Bigelow’s camera emphasizes beauty over danger, with magic-hour shots of majestic tubes and whitecaps, and a pair of skydiving sequences that are more poetry than action.
For a film with such pleasing surfaces, it’s probably unfair to carp about its lack of depth, but carp I shall. Not enough is done to explore the contradictions at the heart of Bodhi’s blissful amorality: Here’s a man who talks about standing up against the system, but funds his adventures by thieving and terrorizing others, and professes non-violence yet will have someone else “pay the ultimate price” if necessary. Then again, Swayze’s charisma is so damnably alluring that he could spin some Zen-like justification that would likely forgive whatever crime he deigned to commit. “Feel what the wave is doing, then accept its energy,” Bodhi says. In Point Break, Swayze is the wave.
January 13: Real Genius
January 27: Series 7: The Contenders
February 10: The Last Seduction