Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey, Lori Petty

Rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is teamed up with jaded veteran Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) to investigate a string of bank robberies up and down the California coast. The gang responsible, a professional, highly disciplined crew,  are nicknamed The Ex-Presidents because of the rubber masks they wear during robberies. The case necessitates Utah, a former college quarterback, going undercover in LA’s surf rat subculture because – all together now – The Ex-Presidents are surfers.

I recall Point Break being a bit of a critical punching bag at the time of release – after all, it starred Keanu “Ted” Reeves and dirty dancer Patrick Swayze – but time has shown future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow’s fourth solo directorial effort for what it is: a taut, muscular, supremely confident action flick that has, if you’ll pardon the obvious imagery, some surprising depths beneath its turbulent surface.

It’s also, lest we forget, the model for 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, the first installment of the biggest action franchise in the world today. Utah’s investigation brings him into the circle of beach-bleached Zen surfer Bodhi (Swayze) and his broterie, plus romance with spunky Tyler (Lori Petty), so of course Bodhi and his boys are the robbers, and Utah is conflicted – after all, life on the waves with the wise and accepting Bodhi is a hell of a lot more appealing than getting his balls busted on a daily basis by FBI Director Harp (the great John C. McGinley). Indeed, it’s only when the Presidents gun down Utah’s other father figure, surly old Angelo, that his choices become clear.

Bigelow has an astute eye for male relationships and platonic intimacy that runs through her entire body of work, but what really impresses here is the way she fetishises the ocean as a place of transition and transformation. In Point Break, water is where we go to test ourselves: when we first meet Utah, he’s on a rain-drenched FBI Academy shooting range; When we encounter Angelo, he’s tasked with retrieving weights from the bottom of a swimming pool while blindfolded; a whole swathe of the film is dedicated to Utah learning to surf; and, of course, Bodhi’s goal (and fate) is to pit himself against the semi-mystical Fifty Year Storm at Bell’s Beach. Much as the Furious franchise’s elevation of family as a ideal leavens its potentially lunk-headed revhead ethos, this theme transforms the sometimes posturing masculinity of Point Break into something higher and purer than mere dudebro tribal coding.

But let us not forget that this is, first and foremost, a kick-ass action movie. Bigelow here is clearly taking cues from the way Tony Scott revolutionised the form from Top Gun onwards, using handheld cameras and off-centre framing to give her action beats momentum and urgency, and utilising deep focus and diffuse shafts of light to demarcate space. There are several sequences that are worth cheering, but if we’re going to pick one it’s the fantastic foot chase through the back alleys of Venice Beach (and if we’re going to pick two, frame by frame the raid on the Surf Nazi flophouse – it’s incredible).

We got a predictably terrible remake in 2015, which is worth watching only to see how very badly an inept creative team can mangle a classic – and that’s what Point Break is: an honest-to-god classic of the action genre that delivers thematic depth while never forgetting that is key remit is to get the blood pumping.

TRAVIS JOHNSON

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