In light of the critical and commercial disaster that has been the recent remake of 1991’s Point Break, a desire to see what made the original beloved enough to be remade in the first place pique my interest, despite warnings from elders that it wasn’t that great a movie in 1991 and has remained such over the years. But Kathryn Bigelow is a director with a knack for the action genre, and Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves are the odd dream team we never knew we needed. What could go wrong?
A lot, it seems. Stellar action sequences aside, Point Break is a paltry thriller, cursed by a bad case of self-seriousness and performances that borderline on being parodical. I can hardly decide what bothers me more: the Saturday Night Live ready surfer dude speak, or the plot, which, when not being laughable, bears the feeling of a particular idea-drained episode of Hawaii Five-O. Plenty of first-rate filmmaking swims beneath the undercurrent of risibility, but you’ll only see it if you pull apart the many layers of muck that covers its exterior.
Leading a cast that contains no standouts besides the always-welcome Lori Petty, Keanu Reeves portrays Johnny Utah, a former star quarterback fresh from the constraints of FBI training. Young and enthusiastic, he is assigned to investigate a series of bank robberies executed by the Ex-Presidents, a group of thugs who disguise their mugs by wearing Halloween masks of the likes of Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, etc. Aided by veteran Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), Utah goes undercover as a surfer, the demographic Pappas believes to be responsible for the crimes.
This theory eventually leads to local legend Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a surfing guru whose wisdom might seem cultish if he weren’t such a zen figure. Believing in the highs of adrenaline and living life to the fullest, Utah, against all odds, is seduced by the latter’s lifestyle, unsure of what to think when it turns out that he may actually be the leader of the Ex-Presidents.
The first half of Point Break is promising, but only because its tendency to take itself way too seriously is still new to us and because the story seems solid enough then. But the film quickly descends into surf commercial theatrics, going so far as to feature not one but two scenes of skydiving that do little besides prove that, with the right budget, the right stars, and the right amount of land-based action, you can do anything. I’m not so convinced, despite the fact that Bigelow is great at directing this sort of material and admittedly does provide it with some excellently shot sequences of suspense (I especially admired the epic on-foot chase between Utah and an escaped bank robber that occurs near the end of the film).
I think much of the unbelievability of Point Break has to do with its leading men: Reeves, famed for his inability to persuasively emote, is an anti-hero with no spunk; Petty, who plays his girlfriend, has more personality — we’d rather she lead the way, not the vacant him. Swayze, who has never managed to prove to me that his talent has more to do with acting talent than looks, is a villain with no spice, even though Bodhi has the potential to be the quirkiest bad guy of the 1990s.
But alas, Point Break is dumb fun often just dumb, unaware that a lack of self-deprecation is perfectly fine so long as it’s sold right. There’s a lot of cinematic good, but I’m not much inclined to talk about it — you can ponder the merit of the film yourself. C