Watching Grindhouse recently I found myself thinking that if Nicolas Cage is not the greatest actor of his generation he is definitely the most awesome. Awesomeness is a hard-to-quantify quality. It's like legitimate greatness as filtered through the geeky sensibility of Pixie-Stix-addled twelve-year-olds. Grindhouse and Hot Fuzz both accomplish the formidable feat of being at once awesome in themselves and clever post-modern deconstructions of cinematic awesomeness.
After watching Hot Fuzz I was struck with a mad compulsion to immediately go out and rent Point Break, a film Hot Fuzz elevates to a place high atop the pantheon of cinematic awesomeness. But life somehow got in the way and I only caught up with Kathryn Bigelow's, like, totally deep, way-philosophical surfing bank robbers epic yesterday. My expectations were prohibitively high–I would accept nothing less than Nicolas Cage-level awesomeness not to mention way radical wave-riding action and skydiving hijinks–and Point Break did not disappoint.
The key to Point Break's enduring awesomeness is that it plays its premise one-hundred percent straight. If the film were made today I suspect it'd be filled with invisible air quotes and non-stop winks to let the audience know that the filmmakers are way too cool and hip and ironic to expect anyone to take Patrick Swayze seriously as the Buddha of the surfboard set. Even the casting of Swayze, the Fabio of contemporary film actors, would come off as snidely tongue-in-cheek. As Snakes On A Plane and Spice World both illustrate, nothing kills a potential camp classic quite like constantly letting audiences know you're in on the joke.
So it's a small miracle that the producers of Point Break found a director (Bigelow) who seems to have genuinely believed she was making a modern-day Wild Bunch, not a ridiculous exercise in high camp.
Point Break is consequently a fascinating combination of the legitimately great (first-person chases and action sequences worthy of William Friedkin, juicy supporting turns by tough guy character actors Gary Busey, Tom Sizemore and John C. McGinley, gorgeous cinematography and impressive surf stunts from a pre-digital era) and the "great" (Reeves, Swayze, the whole Philosophy 101 vibe of Swayze's New Age worldview).
In Point Break Reeves, he of the androgynous good looks and eminently mockable slacker cadences, plays a recent law school grad turned FBI agent who goes undercover to catch "The Ex-Presidents", a gang that robs banks while wearing rubber masks of former commanders-in-chiefs. In a more self-conscious film the fact that Swayze wears a mask of the only handsome B-movie actor ever to become President (you can probably guess who that'd be) would qualify as a sly inside joke. Along the way Reeves gets sucked into the thrill-crazed world of Swayze and his merry band of sociopaths and woos surfer girl Lori Petty by sadistically pretending his parents are dead, just like hers. The really remarkable thing about the surfing baddies here is that they conform to every half-assed stereotype of surfers as wave-addled, spacey dudes while also somehow doubling as Nietzschean uber-men living above the law.
Icons more than actors, Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze aren't the kind of professional chameleons who disappear into roles. On the contrary, roles disappear into them. Despite their best efforts Reeves cannot escape the essential Keanuness of his being, just as Swayze will never suggest anything other than a Chippendale's dancer who sold his soul to the devil for a shot at fame. This ultimately works in the film's favor, however:Point Break becomes as much a meditation on the strange stardom of Swayze and Reeves as a conventional action movie.
With Point Break Bigelow tried to transform a glorified Mountain Dew commercial into pop art. Remarkably, she succeeded.