Empty Balcony: Point Break

It’s somewhat amazing, but Point Break, the 1991 action flick from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter W. Peter Iliff, has become a classic. It’s a film that’s loaded with contemporary action tropes. It’s also one of the flicks that, despite its success, can be pointed to as partly responsible for the downfall of 1980s-style action films. It has aged well over time, but when it came out it was an eye-roller.

In Point Break, Los Angeles is in the midst of a crime wave. That’s no surprise. 1991, when this film was released, was right around the peak of violent crime in this country. There were over 2,600 murders in New York City in 1990, and another 2,570 in 1991. Meanwhile, Los Angeles County was clocking similar homicide rates — a record of crime that hasn’t been matched since.

Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), freshly graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, has been assigned to the bank robbery investigative unit at the Los Angeles field office. He’s a gung ho fella, and for his troubles he’s been partnered up with the office misfit, Special Agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey). Pappas is somewhat persona non grata in the office at the moment. It’s not because he’s a bad agent. Rather, it’s because he has a theory about a gang of bank robbers the unit has been chasing that seems ridiculous.

The gang call themselves the Ex-Presidents. They rob banks while armed to the teeth and wearing rubber Halloween masks of former presidents for disguise. They are meticulous and quick, never chasing after a bigger haul at the risk of getting caught. They threaten violence but so far have never fired their weapons. They are a professional crew who know their jobs and do them well. They are also, according to Agent Pappas, surfers.

Pappas deduced that all of the gang’s robberies have taken place during the summer in the Los Angeles area, when it’s a good time to catch waves. That, and he found enough other circumstantial evidence to make his theory plausible. Johnny Utah, then, is actually a godsend for Pappas. Johnny is young, tall, and good-looking. Being Keanu, he already sounds like a surfer even when he’s trying not to. Pappas hatches a plan to send Johnny undercover onto the beaches of Los Angeles to infiltrate the surfing community and find the bank robbers.

Yeah, that idea is insane, right? Who makes a movie about this? Kathryn Bigelow, that’s who.

As it turns out, Pappas is right! There is a gang of surfers robbing banks so they can finance a yearly trip around the world chasing summer. Successful bank robberies equal endless surfing. It’s the perfect plan.

Johnny buys himself a surfboard and after some fits and starts, including being introduced to this film’s love interest, Tyler (Lori Petty), works his way into the good graces of Bodhi and his crew. Bodhi, played by Patrick Swayze in one of his signature roles, is a surf guru extraordinaire. He has a connection with the sea, and nature, and life, that is annoyingly endearing. His crew consists of mostly adrenaline-junkie knuckleheads, which doesn’t speak all that well to his prowess as a mystic, but he’s super nice. He’s also a bank robber.

No surprise, there. Despite some misdirection in the middle act, it’s clear from the moment Swayze appears on screen, and from the trailer, that Bodhi and company are the bad guys.

What follows is Johnny and Pappas piecing together the clues, leading to conflict and denouement. The Ex-Presidents must go down, but Johnny is becoming one of them, etc. There’s nothing all that original when it comes to Johnny and his relationship with his targets. But it is done well.

Bigelow took an absolutely ridiculous premise — the FBI hunting surfing bank robbers — and turned it into a thrilling action film. A full half of the film takes place after Johnny and Pappas figure out who are the bad guys. And that second half consists of gunfights, car chases, and not one, but two skydiving scenes. Incredible! The scale of the whole enterprise and the quality of the action far outweigh the absurdity of it all. Seriously. Bank robbing surfers. Being chased by Hollywood’s most successful brah.

Keanu Reeves is a big star, and it’s because of his turns in films like Point Break. The crazy thing is, his acting is atrocious. It always has been. His readings are no more dead in this flick than in something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, yet here it works. Here he is an FBI agent going undercover as a surfer and it matters not when he says a line such as, “I don’t think I wanna surf right now,” like a toddler with a tummy ache. It’s Keanu. A viewer just can’t get mad at him.

The location, the characters, the cast, the plot. None of it should work, yet it does. Point Break is quite possibly the best stupid action flick ever made. Kathryn Bigelow took a b-movie idea and turned it into something special.