Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action film Point Break is, as they say, “a keeper”. It is more than 30 years old, and yet there are things it still has to teach action movie directors today. Its visual sense and choreography, and particularly its innovative shooting techniques, still stand heads-and-shoulders above most genre films since. Bigelow has gone on to bigger and better features since, but in terms of pure muscular cinema this is pretty much unparalleled. There is such a growing promise to Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1990), and tremendous artistry in The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Detroit (2017), but it is Point Break that feels close to a sweet spot for Bigelow’s career. It seems like a pinnacle to the first phase.
Rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is assigned to the Los Angeles robbery division, which has been struggling to identify four masked bank robbers known as the ‘Ex-Presidents’. When his partner (Gary Busey) shares his theory that the robbers are surfers, Utah is sent undercover into California’s surf community. There he quickly connects with surfers Tyler (Lori Petty) and Bodhi (Patrick Swayze).
If there is a downside to Point Break, it is that while plotted like a rocket it is scripted with a tin ear for dialogue. Lines regularly sound as if they were inserted for use in the trailer, or simply come across as too artificial to be convincing. Reeves in particular, here making his debut as an action star, tends to struggle with the screenplay. He has a sensational screen presence, as handles the action of the film brilliantly, but at this early stage of his career the transition from broad comedy to drama is a difficult fit. Swayze handles the film much better, making Bodhi a fascinating and well-rounded character with plenty of range. Lori Petty is under-served by the narrative, but like Reeves brings a lot of charm and presence.
It is in the action that Point Break cements its reputation. By focusing on surfing and sky-diving it foreshadows the mainstream popularity of ‘extreme sports’ that would emerge during the 1990s. It is shot with a combination of wide-angle set-ups and frantic, handheld photography – so innovative at the time that it required constructing an entirely new lightweight film camera. Just over a decade later, action cinema would broadly split into films shot for geography – stable, graceful shots where the viewer can see where all of the characters are in relation to one another – or for emotion – the frantic hand-held chaos typified by the Bourne franchise of spy thrillers. In 1991 Point Break was managing to juggle both approaches at the same time. Its action sequences, led by a bravado foot chase through backyards and alleyways, may have aged, but they simply haven’t dated.
Action cinema is a populist genre that often struggles for respect among critics. It has always deserved better: Point Break is a landmark for the field. It remains a significant classic in the history of American film.