‘Point Break’ offered a new kind of action film for the 90s — Ultimate Movie Year
It moves with a verve and energy that compels us while Reeves and Swayze debate their righteousness in between the action
Released July 12, 1991
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Where to Watch
Movies are one of our best avenues for us to enter unfamiliar worlds, even when it takes place on our home planet. There are so many activities, places, and sensations that most of us never get to experience in our regular lives that can thrill us in films, which is why when the window to these worlds is opened, it must capture the allure as much as possible.
Take Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break.” The action drama from 1991 sees Keanu Reeves as FBI agent Johnny Utah going undercover to infiltrate a group of high-level surfers who rob banks in their off time. Like the agent, the audience is likely entering this world of beaches, waves, and good vibes for the first time, so it’s essential to deliver a relatable experience without viewers leaving their seats. Picture how filmmakers establish the active, noisy newsrooms of “All the President’s Men,” the speed of the fighter jets of “Top Gun,” or the cigar-filled backroom card tables of “Rounders.”
That is precisely what Bigelow does in “Point Break,” using various filmmaking techniques and equipment to capture incredible scenes that depict the beauty and excitement of surfing in unique ways. The activity can be challenging enough on its own, given that surfers use patience to find the right waves and then their own athleticism to ride it. Add in the complexities of filming all of this on location in an unpredictable environment, such as the way light can reflect off the surface of the water. And finally, the movie stars actors who had little to no experience surfing.
“They were basically all beginners,” actor and surfer Dennis Jarvis said of training the cast for two months before production began.” I wasn’t concerned if they could do a roundhouse cutback. My focus was on giving them the mannerisms of a hot, professional surfer.”
Despite all the challenges, Bigelow uses all of it to her advantage in “Point Break.” The surfing scenes are a mix of the actors really surfing with stunt doubles hidden in silhouettes, a handy device to also remind audiences of the ambiance of beach sunsets.
This scene introduces us to Bodhi, a free-spirited, charismatic surfer who Johnny later learns is actually the leader of the bank robbers who call themselves the Ex-Presidents (inspired by the rubber masks they wear during their heists). After becoming a star playing heroic, romantic leads, Patrick Swayze tries his hand at being the story’s antagonist. And guess what? He’s pretty good at it, as Swayze makes everything he does better just by being in it. Swayze plays Bodhi with a tempting, alluring spirit; the coolest person in the room that you want to impress but is constantly pushing you toward the edge.
Another visual highlight of “Point Break” is the skydiving sequences, which feature both the actors and crew jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. Again, Bigelow has a knack for capturing the experience of these actions through her visuals, taking the time to just enjoy the sensations of free-falling without the urgency to immediately resume the story. Seeing these daredevils enjoy themselves with the surface presented as a distant landscape creates the feeling that these guys could fall forever.
But these scenes mean nothing without context, and fortunately, Reeves and Swayze offer a lot to chew on as the relationship between Johnny and Bodhi grows. In their own unique way, the two lead actors are the zen gurus of sincerity and kindness. Observing from afar, they seem to have significantly more chill in their daily lives than most of their peers. Keanu got grief during this period for some of his line readings (possibly because the general public was not used to hearing him in a non-Ted Logan voice). Still, Swayze and Reeves have believable chemistry of guys who would rather be friends than enemies.
The soundtrack of “Point Break” is also engaging, as it’s an eclectic mix of classic songs, rap, hard rock, and one of the early instances of alternative music in a film. Songs by Jimi Hendrix, School of Fish, Westworld, Ice-T, Concrete Blonde, Ratt, and more created a new template of curated soundtrack music that would become increasingly popular throughout the 90s.
Between the sights, sounds, and stars, “Point Break” felt like a new kind of action movie was being born after the gun-and-muscle thrills of the late 80s that culminated in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” released just a week prior. As it happens, Bigelow was married to “T2” director James Cameron, who is credited as an executive producer for “Point Break” (The two divorced that year, making 1991 a pretty eventful time for both of them). For Bigelow, it was the movie’s spiritual battle between law and freedom that appealed to her.
“I was attracted to it right from the beginning because I love the paradox it set up,” Bigelow said in the featurette, “It’s Make or Break.” “You have these two worlds in direct opposition to one another. The world of surfing juxtaposed with the penal system. It’s the system against the anti-system.”
“Point Break” found a receptive audience when it debuted, scoring a 70 percent approval rating from critics and 79 percent from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. It opened in fourth place with $8.5 million, facing heavy competition from the second week of “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and the surprise “Boyz n the Hood.” “Point Break” was a sleeper in theaters, earning $43.2 million domestically and $83.5 million internationally.
Not everything in “Point Break” holds together, occasionally making more giant leaps of logic in the story than the guys jumping out of airplanes. But it moves with a verve and energy that compels us while Reeves and Swayze debate their righteousness in between the action.
“Bigelow is an interesting director for this material,” wrote Roger Ebert. “She is interested in the ways her characters live dangerously for philosophical reasons. They aren’t men of action, but men of thought who choose action as a way of expressing their beliefs. That adds an intriguing element to their characters, and makes the final confrontation in this movie as meaningful as it can be, given the admittedly preposterous nature of the material.”
“Point Break” was ahead of the curve on so many of the trends of the 90s: extreme sports, music, Keanu Reeves. It lets us into a world most of us have no experience in, translating those thrills for our enjoyment. The movie was remade in 2015 and promptly wiped out on nearly every level. It’s just as well, as returning to and replicating “Point Break” in any form fails the 1991’s ethos of living in the moment.
At the Box Office: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” in its second week, continues its domination of the box office with another $20.7 million weekend, bringing its total so far to $90.4 million. The James Cameron sequel is already the third highest-grossing movie of the year behind “Silence of the Lambs” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”
Pardon me while I put my old man suspenders on, but BACK IN THE DAY, Disney didn’t remake live-action versions of its animated classics; they just rereleased the original movie. This year, they put 1961’s “101 Dalmatians” back into theaters beginning this weekend. It made $10.3 million, good enough for second place.
“Boyz n the Hood,” which would become one of the essential movies of the decade, made its debut here in third place with $10 million. We’ll deep dive into the John Singleton film in a few days in the standard Ultimate Movie Year column. As we mentioned, “Point Break” finished fourth with $8.5 million, followed by “The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear” with $7.3 million.
The other major new release of the weekend was Mike Nichols’ “Regarding Henry” with Harrison Ford. The drama finished in sixth place with $6.1 million.
In the News: The Black Congressional Caucus votes to oppose President George H.W. Bush’s Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, a process that would become more contentious in the coming weeks; Boris Yeltsin is sworn in as the elected president of the Russian federation; Did Keanu’s appearance in Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” video provide additional marketing for “Point Break” and next week’s movie? Maybe, but what’s for sure is that Abdul’s single tops the Billboard Hot 100 for the fifth week in a row; Finally, a total eclipse of the sun darkens much of the Pacific Ocean.
Next Week: “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”