Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break has been labeled many things. Frequently dismissed as a crassly commercial big-budgeted actioner, a rather silly, shallow over-the-top, action thriller with generous helpings of comedy, New Age philosophizing and romance, with protracted focus on surfing in the Los Angeles area, starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, many critics seem to have either missed or perhaps scoffed at the contributions of the film's helmer, Kathryn Bigelow. Point Break's screenplay—by Rick King and Peter Iliff—is bursting at the seams with clichés and stereotypes, but Bigelow's direction allows for the characters to be predominantly expressed through cinematic shorthand. Some sections of the script—no, many sections of the script—are too talky, but whenever Bigelow has the opportunity, she cuts down the excess of words by supplying a rich palette of a marvelously packed 2:35 'Scope widescreen frame, ceaselessly offering a supremely confident brand of action-filmmaking. Rarely has an action filmmaker utilized this aspect ratio with as much gusto; Bigelow makes the 'Scope letterbox format a necessity, squeezing in as much geographical information as possible. Today's speed-freak fast-cutting action directors could take many pointers from Bigelow on how to sustain tension through genuinely comprehensible shooting of action sequences, not to mention merely allowing the audience to understand what is occurring and to whom it is occurring. The 'Scope aspect ratio gives her, and director of photography Donald Peterman, free rein. In one early exquisite shot, for instance, Bigelow and Peterman frame a group of bank robbers wearing masks (of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan) as one unified group, separating and dispersing away from one another as they briefly seize a bank. Bigelow utilizes the spatial gulfs between characters to connote geography.
Considered the most famous alum of the San Francisco Art Institute, Bigelow matriculated as a painter. With her motion pictures, she displays the visual adroitness that flaunts her conception of the screen as a canvas. Action for her is not to be used to engender a whirling, disorienting blur for the viewer; in Point Break, for instance, her framing of surfing sequences is perfectly symmetrical, capturing Reeves' FBI agent Johnny Utah's development as a surfer with logical consistency. Shooting the horizon from beaches, Bigelow's painting talents must have helped significantly in mirthfully playing with the amplitude of space, locational margins and the breadth of artistic panels. Whether surfing seems like a fun hobby or not, Bigelow renders it with an air of excitement and awe.
Critics who mistake plot for meaning and theme tirelessly go about thrashing Point Break's borderline mindless lack of logic. Agent Utah, it is said, finished second in his class at Quantico, yet seems like a remarkably ineffective and unintelligent individual. Repeatedly certain events transpire with very little to buttress them with rational motivation and purpose but for the desire to keep moving the story along. A veteran, comically burnt-out agent (Gary Busey, who wisely enjoys himself in his part) behaves quite inappropriately with great regularity in almost every manner conceivable. The film indulges itself in myriad tropes of the crime thriller, with an overbearing FBI boss played by John McGinley periodically chewing out his subordinates' derrieres.
What makes Point Break.... break free from becoming just another derivative action extravaganza is Bigelow's virtuosity. As in the vampire cult film Near Dark, Bigelow laces her action with impressive flurries of technique. The most distinguishing trademark she applies to the dyspeptic proceedings is a bracing, breathless point-of-view perspective—mainly Utah's—as in a frenzied chase on foot through a Los Angeles neighborhood. By placing the viewer in the action, Bigelow emphatically connects the vista (typified by the many surfing scenes of the film's first stretch) to the individual (from which more and more of the film is seen).
The most wondrously exhilarating marrying of these respective elements is a tremendous sky-diving scene, in which Reeves' Utah descends from an airplane, joining the group of bank robbers with whom he has been undercover for some time. It is here where Point Break achieves something approximating sublimeness: like Enoch, the extraordinary mortal elevated to the status of the angelic, Utah joins his newfound friends/technical enemies in heaven, looking down upon the earth. Bigelow shifts perspectives with a fluid ease, once again placing the spectator perfectly into the heart of the action while completely detailing the entire panorama that encompasses the viewpoint (of a painter, an artist, an FBI agent...). This is bravura, accomplished and dazzlingly crafted filmmaking, lent to a deliriously preposterous high concept.
Bigelow's mise-en-scene accentuates the “small scenes” as well. One of the best sequences of Point Break is actually a nighttime beach football game. The camera finds itself arranged amidst the ongoing struggle as one player passes the ball to another. Hurriedly, Bigelow complements the topographic mastery with which she gifts the film with a kaleidoscopic recording of every physical ruction. What finally makes Bigelow's artfully composed helming of human movement come alive is the thematic weight that lurks beneath the superficies of the action. Reeves' FBI agent is drawn to the enigmatic, Zen-like leader of the bank-robbing surfers, Swayze's enigmatically self-named Bodhi. Swayze's charismatic performance is the film's most successful addition to Bigelow's propulsive filmic appliqué, with his surfer looks and steely cerulean eyes, he practically begs both Utah and the audience to join him in his rambunctious daredevil shenanigans. When Utah tackles the running Bodhi in the surf of the ocean, those who love Bodhi express anger with Utah, but Bodhi tells them who he is—a former college football quarterback star. In a confrontation with a group of beach-terrorizing brutes, Utah has to be rescued by Bodhi, who admires the undercover agent's fearlessness. Little by little, scene by the scene, Bigelow manages to sustain a fastidious telling of literally fabulous friendship between men. Bigelow's concerns suggest a woman truly, almost heedlessly, interested in the ties and connections between cosmetically adversarial men. As in Near Dark and Blue Steel, and later in the forgettable K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow is—most fittingly for a female director rightly celebrated for her breathtaking command of action—an expert fabulist of unlikely male bonding.