Vaya con Dios: The Brilliant Stupidity of Point Break

Point Break, 1991
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze and Gary Busey
IMBD Composite Score: 7.2

Rotten Tomatoes Composite Score: 68%
Run Time: 122 min.

For some reason I never found my way to Kathryn Bigelow's seminal 1991 action flick Point Break, which is pretty weird the more I think about it. After all, Road House (1989) and Red Dawn (1984) were both regular fixtures on my fraternity's busted, stand-alone big screen (you know the one I mean), which means I'm no stranger to the doofy/divine ying-yang of Patrick Swayze, a guy who can spout off a pseudo-spiritual insight one minute and rip a guy's throat out the next. And there's no denying that Point Break is Swayze's movie, through-and-through. Keanu might get top billing, but Swayze is the star.

But let's back up a minute. 

Point Break tells the story of Reeve's Johnny Utah (the first of many gloriously ludicrous plot details), a hotshot-college-QB-turned-junior-FBI-agent fresh out of Quantico (top of his class!) and new to the LA beat. The whole of this backstory, by the way, is dumped on us within the first 20 seconds of the film in one unbroken stream of Sorkin-style walk-and-talk exposition, delivered by none other than a young, surly John C. McGinley doing his best  "action movie police chief" impression. Somebody's been reading Save the Cat.

Johnny is saddled with the department's resident nut-job Pappas, a pre-crash Gary Busey who spends a good chunk of the movie in that one Hobie shirt every 90s kid wore for their 3rd-grade picture day. The Agents are assigned (along with seemingly the entire department) to the "Ex-Presidents" case, tracking down a gang of bank robbers who wear rubber masks of LBJ, Reagan, Carter and Nixon when knocking over their targets. This crew's hit 30 banks in the last 10 years, all without a single injury to a civilian . . . or a single clue that might help the Feds bust them. The Ex-Presidents are successful for two reasons: they're quick, never spending longer than 90 seconds at any given job; and they're efficient, only taking from the registers while leaving the bigger (and more lucrative) vault scores behind. So far, pretty standard cop-movie stuff. But this is only the preamble, and things are about to take a hard turn towards Weirdsville.

One late night at the office, Pappas lays out his theory as to who these stick-up men really are: a gang of surfers, robbing banks to "fund their never-ending summer". Armed with only the tiniest sliver of evidence (some pseudo-science about sand fibers and surfboard wax), Johnny and Pappas decide to infiltrate the Santa Monica surf scene and sniff out the bad guys. Enter Lauren Petty's Tyler (the film's love-interest), a local surfer chick who gives a hopeless Johnny lessons in a hilariously by-the-numbers training montage, and, more importantly, introduces him to Swayze's magnetic Bodhi, an enlightened surf-guru who's "searching for the ultimate thrill" by any means necessary. 

Soon Johnny is part of the gang (all of whom have cheesy surfer-bro names that aren't worth remembering), chasing the waves with Bodhi and friends while simultaneously pursuing a group of rival surfers, positive they're the guys he's looking for. But after a bust-gone-wrong reveals his suspects (fronted by Red Hot Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis) are simply a bunch of assholes/minor-league meth dealers, Johnny finds himself back at square one. Fortuitously enough, he falls ass-backwards into a new clue when he matches up the tan line on one of Bodhi's crew members with surveillance footage from the scene of one of the robberies, and the tumblers start falling into place.

Johnny cracks the Ex-President's pattern, staking out their next target with Pappas and mucking things up good. During the ensuing chase, Johnny blows out his knee chasing Bodhi into the LA River (giving us arguably the film's most famous shot, Johnny impotently emptying his clip into the sky while screaming in pain and frustration). Soon after, Bodhi and his cohorts show up at Johnny's apartment and  strong-arm him onto a skydiving plane, where they play a round of Russian Roulette with the parachutes. After landing safely, Bodhi takes an amped-up Johnny aside and shows him a video of a kidnapped Tyler being tortured, as a way of confronting the reality of the situation and revealing who really has the upper hand. Then it's on to the next robbery, with Johnny in tow (echoes of Patty Hearst abound).

This time Bodhi gets greedy, sending his guys to attack the vault for one last big score before blowing town. Meanwhile, an off-duty cop and a security guard use this extended window to open fire, plugging various members of the gang and killing one outright. An enraged Bodhi shoots the cop, then cold-cocks Johnny, leaving him to take the fall as the remaining Ex-Presidents make their escape.

Johnny and Pappas give chase to the airport, defying orders from the higher ups, only to instigate a fire fight that ends with Pappas and one of Bodhi's crew on ice with another member of the gang gravely injured. Bodhi forces Johnny onto the plane, intending to jump and leave him behind to take the blame once again. Bodhi and his mortally wounded henchmen jump over their drop zone, and a desperate Johnny dives out after them, sans shoot. He catches Bodhi in mid-air and forces him to pull his parachute at the last possible moment, re-injuring that bum knee and officially ending any chance Johnny might have of running the 100-meter in the Olympics one day. Bodhi grabs the cash and escapes, releasing Tyler into Johnny's waiting arms.

An epilogue of sorts brings us to Bells Beach in Victoria, Australia, where we find Bodhi waiting to catch a massive wave during what he calls the "50-Year Storm", an epic event he speaks about as his Mecca earlier in the film. Johnny finds him there on the beach, and the two scrap it up in the surf, with Johnny eventually handcuffing himself to Bodhi. As a host of Australian coppers descend onto the beach, Bodhi begs Johnny to let him go so he can catch one last wave before being arrested. Understanding what he really means, Johnny uncuffs Bodhi and releases him to his fate. Bodhi paddles into a suicidal storm surge as Johnny walks away, tossing his badge into the surf. Roll credits.

This should all be much, much stupider than it is. Roger Ebert pointed out in his review that the basic plotline of Point Break could just as easily describe a Naked Gun (1988) sequel, one where straight-laced Frank Drebin infiltrates the SoCal surfer scene (in another, better universe the Zucker Brothers ran with this idea). But Bigelow's confident directing and gorgeously crafted surfing and sky-diving shots keep the film moving, and entertaining as hell. Bigelow wasn't the first one to do this kind of big, dumb mainstream action movie (that honor probably goes to Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon (1987)), but Bigelow's film predates the bombastic lunacy of Michael Bay by a few years (Bad Boys wouldn't come out until five years later), and Point Break really feels a lot like a beta version of Bay's early work (The Rock would come out a year after Bad Boys, solidifying Bay's place at the top of machismo mountain).

Reeves plays the upstart hotshot well enough, and Busey steals damn near every scene he's in with a series of insane and oddly-specific one-liners ("I was in this bureau when you were still popping zits on your funny face and jerking off with the lingerie section of the Sears catalog!") But there's no denying this is Swayze's movie. He plays the existential buffoon masterfully, and it's his spurious enlightenment that drives the narrative. He's a pacifist who doesn't think twice about shooting a guy in cold blood or torturing a former flame to get what he wants, and his slow seduction of Johnny is a fascinating look into the criminal psyche. In creating a truly unique type of villain, the zen-slacker-criminal-with-a-code, Swayze creates a mesmerizing character who's worthy of entry into the hall of virtuoso big screen villains (even if he belongs in the back somewhere).

MVM RATING: 4 out 5 Johnny Utah Knee-Replacement Surgeries
FUN FACT: Val Kilmer, Johnny Depp, Matthew Broderick (whut), Willem Dafoe (double-whut) and Charlie Sheen were all considered for the role of Johnny Utah.