Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Point Break (1991)

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.


Chuck said...

Agreed. This is a fabulous movie, and not in an ironic, winky, quotation mark sense. Bigelow is a superb stylist - few other director's action scenes are as intimate and immersive as hers.

The script is genre, but quick, efficient, fun genre. Bigelow's direction and the underrated Swayze and a well-used Reeves (he's grown on me, and his spaciness works for this) elevate it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Chuck. Yes, Bigelow truly impresses me. She seems to need the "genre" label and trappings of her work to properly express herself (as the interesting but ultimately pretentious failure The Weight of Water seems to suggest).

This is simply a fun film. I agree with you about Swayze and Reeves--I wouldn't want anyone else in these roles (or Busey's, for that matter). (I actually saw this with Street Kings this weekend as a kind of Keanu double bill: when used properly, Reeves can be surprisingly effective. People can say what they will but his earnestness comes off as more genuine than many stars right now.)

The subtext of this review is, I'm dying to see The Hurt Locker. I hope it's the first Iraq war film that doesn't feel like someone trying to make Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket in a sandlot. (As I said once somewhere else, the trailer actually made me think of Robert Aldrich's Ten Seconds to Hell.)

Kevin J. Olson said...


I second your appreciation for Bigelow and this film. Point Break is an odd entity because it really does serve two purposes: it's both an exhilarating action picture (the chase through the houses and backyards is tense and perfectly executed) and a guffaw inducing screenplay that makes for one of those films that’s a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure.

One of my favorite ways of watching this movie was when my brother and I watched it with the commentary from the guys at Riftrax (former MST3K dudes). I bring this up because it's a perfect example of how the film can be viewed with two distinct lenses.

I still think the film, despite how easy it is to make fun, is one of the best and most brilliantly executed action films in the last 20 years. It certainly taps into the nostalgia of those like us who grew up with this prototype of the action film, and few are better than Point Break. If Michael Bay were making this film today, there would be no hope. Bigelow creates a fine balance between hyperkinetic action filmmaking and being able to keep her camera still long enough for the viewer to understand the action scene. (Again, the chase is a perfect example of this).

I also think it’s funny how this film was pretty much, major plot point for major plot point, the blueprint for the first Fast and the Furious film. Paul Walker is pretty much the younger version of Keanu Reeves and Vin Diesel oozes the cool machismo and faux-philosophy that makes his character so attractive to the undercover cop played by Walker. In both films agents have to infiltrate a gang of robbers (banks versus DVD players and TV’s) who do cool things (surf versus street racing). In both films said agents get to be well liked by the head guru (Swayze and Diesel) through the vouching of beautiful women (ex-girlfriend Lori Petty in Point Break and smokin’ hot sister Jordana Brewster in Fast and the Furious). Once inside the organization they have to prove themselves and soon gain the trust of the head guy. Then there is the obligatory moment where another agent questions whether or not they will atrrest the guy because they are getting “too close”. This of course results in the agents understanding why the bad guys have turned to a life of crime, and thus they sympathize with them. And when the moment comes to put them away, they let them go (by surfing to their death or driving off in a car, both result in the agents throwing their badges away as the film ends…).

Anyway…sorry about that rant.

Bigelow is one of those filmmakers who still remain criminally underappreciated. Strange Days remains for me one of the best film of the 90's. It's a classic example of a director taking the idea of Noir and placing it in a postmodern context. It contains one of my favorite Ralph Fiennes performances (I am happy to see he is going to be in The Hurt Locker, for which I can hardly wait...) and some of the most ingenious ways of dissecting the "clues" of the film. The tweaking of that particular Noir trope is what makes the film so memorable.

I agree with you also about The Weight of Water, a film that I was extremely disappointed in, but I still recommend it because it's one of those movies that don’t quite qualify as a good film, but it's an interesting viewing experience.

I'm so glad you wrote about Point Break in a serious way, as too often I think of it more as an exercise in bad screenwriting, rather than the beautiful direction that is on display from Bigelow. It's nice to see someone point that out, because it is a damn fine looking picture.

I hope more people will check out her resume. She's quite an amazing artist.

Oh and yes...this was during Busey's glory days. Which do you like better, Busey in Point Break as the washed-up, curmudgeon veteran, or as the psychotic mercenary Joshua in Lethal Weapon?

I have to go with Lethal Weapon for the scene where he burns his arm! What a great character actor completely wasted because of drug abuse.

Kevin J. Olson said...

oh, and I'm sorry that was so long.

Harold said...

Coleman, if someone asked me the number one reason I check in on your website every day now (I just started looking in awhile back) it would be because you're intellectually honest and you don't condescend to movies of any stripe. You really engage with film the way it should be engaged with and for that I give you serious kudos.

This is a great case in point. I think you nail it. Too many critics turn their nose up at stuff just because it's one thing or another but you look deeper, dude (sorry but it's Point Break after all).

I dunno why Bigelow isn't considered one of the best action directors of the last 25 years. I just wish she made more movies.

Again, really great work here.

Anonymous said...

There are certainly some critics out there that watch cinema as something of a chore. A job and nothing else. Reviews like this remind us that you don't do this for your health or income. You do this for love of cinema. Pure, uncomplicated, love.

Mad props man.

Sam Juliano said...

This is TOO funny. I just completed a long response for you stating my own perceptions on John Boorman's POINT BLANK, only to come here and find out that your review is NOT on POINT BLANK at all, but on a Kathryn Bigelow film I honestly have not seen, even if I am familiar and have seen some others by her (STRANGE DAYS, THE WEIGHT OF WATER, NEAR DARK) I was reasonably impressed with STRANGE DAYS, even though it hasn't stayed with me like some other genre pieces of its kind. I was not a fan of BLUE STEEL nor K:19, the latter one that you rightly trash.

In any case, you do your usual exhaustive work in bringing a seemingly entertaining film to visual life, and you spend the lion's share of your review tauting Ms. Bigelow, beginning with her use of the scope widescreen compositions, that she perfected as a result of years as a "painter" which yields among other assets "an aptitude of space" and showy "artistic panels."
You make a point of deriding critics who mistake plot for theme as well. Apparently this is far more straight-forward than STRANGE DAYS, which has a strong noir sensibility. I'll have to give it a shot, especially with the insightful discourse that follows your superb review.

Now are you ready to discuss POINT BLANK?? LOL!!!

----existential and sexy crime thriller influenced by French new wave; non-linear construction; fatlaism; disjointed camera angles; explosive colors; a scintillating Lee Marvin...what else???


ben said...

Coleman's got ya covered, Sam.

Give him your big POINT BLANK comment right here:


ben said...

Here, that is easier.

Alexander Coleman said...


That is an excellent summation of all of the similarities between Point Break and The Fast and the Furious. Now that you bring that all up, yes, you're unquestionably right.

Michael Bay was one of the action "speed-freak" fast-cutting directors I had in mind my review. So many directors, from Bay to Marc Forster with Quantum of Solace and so many others, could definitely learn a lot from Bigelow.

As for Gary Busey, yes, he very winning here. I love his line, "The Ex-Presidents rob banks to finance the endless summer!" That is golden. I prefer his turn in this film over Lethal Weapon--sorry, I never quite lined up for those movies. They're a little too ironic to be as wholly goofy fun like they should be, or too goofy to be as substantial as they occasionally reach for, so I have problems with their tone[s]--but anyone who enjoys them a great deal are still welcome here, ha. Busey was good in his role for that film, however. Again, though, I prefer his largely comic work in Point Break--he makes every little scene I want to see played out sing, such as when he finally punches out McGinley's character. I love the line about respecting one's elders, and the common bond he and Reeves develop (you just know Busey will let him out of his handcuffs in a few seconds).

Anyway, thank you for the terrific thoughts. I love rambling myself as you may have figured out by now. :)

Thank you very much, Harold and Anonymous. I'm touched by your very kind comments. And I agree with your points wholeheartedly. Thanks again.

Sam, as Ben as shown, you are certainly most welcome to post your enormous comment on Point Blank in the comments section of my review for it. :)

Which leads me to say--thanks, Ben! :)

dewie said...

one word...........whoa

arnold mork said...

check out gary busey in under siege... now that was a fine character. glad to here you saw the keanu double feature.better than the shield

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Mork, even if I can't agree. Street Kings was painfully predictable (the bad guy's identity is obvious within ten minutes) but Reeves was solid in it, just as you informed me he was.

Moses Hernandez said...

This is a fantastic review of a movie too many people are afraid to admit they like. Whatever. What is better than surfers who rob banks?!

Alexander Coleman said...

Difficult to argue with that, Moses. Thank you.

tim watts said...

Ultimate pizza movie, right Alexander?

Kevin J. Olson said...

Okay Alexander, I may have to rescind my comments about Busey's better performance being in "Lethal Weapon". I watched the scene last night where they are waiting for the Presidents to rob the bank, and all Busey can think about is eating food. There's something about the manic way he laughs at the comic strip he's reading, and the way he says reminds Utah to get him "two...get two" meatball sandwiches. Just brilliant stuff.

Alexander Coleman said...

That was my way of putting it, Tim. :-)

Kevin--yes, I love that scene dearly, too. In fact, that is a scene that has stayed with me ever since I first saw Point Break. Then when he finally gets his two meatball sandwiches he says, "I should've had you get me three of these things. I'm so hungry I could eat out of the rear end of a rhinoceros." I love the way he delivers these wacky lines.

A caveat for me regarding Lethal Weapon: I never saw even one of those films until about three years ago or so. For many, there is a nostalgic endearment for those films that I just don't have.

Anyway, yes, Busey is rad in Break Point.

Sam Juliano said...

Just got back from the Ringling Brothers circus with the kids at Madison Square Garden.......will definitely check out that POINT BLACK review tomorrow!

Alexander Coleman said...

Point Break, Point Blank, Point Black--so many Points reviewed, so little time, Sam. :)

Troy Olson said...

Not to sound like an old man (after all, I'm only 31), but they simply don't make movies like Point Break anymore. It's one of the last of it's kind, having been replace by the Bay/Bruckheimer style of action film. So sad.

I was surprised when I watched it a few month back (more in an effort to laugh at it than anything else) that it's actually a very well made action film, as you pointed out. Sure it has its cliches (partner gets killed, undercover guy who gets in too deep, kidnapped girlfriend, etc.), but the action sequences are well filmed and the interaction between the characters is reasonably good.

Anyways, nice job giving some love to an often made fun of movie.

And I'll concur that Busey and the meatball subs line is hilarious.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Troy. I appreciate the very kind words.

Yes, it's truly an exceptionally made action film, one of the best of its kind. Which reminds me--you're wholly correct, sadly, about the Bay/Bruckheimer axis of evil destroying so much of what could be good about films of this nature.

Yes, Busey and the meatball subs. I'm going to have a meatball sub in a few days; discussing this scene has made me hungry for one.

Thank you again, Troy.

pigg said...

only a woman can touch me the right way

Anonymous said...


tim watts said...

I see you're back, Alexander. I just saw this one again and loved it more then ever because I kept your review in mind. Great work.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, gentlemen.

Anonymous said...

Kathryn Bigelow is a fine director who has crafted her best work to date in THE HURT LOCKER.

Credit to you Mr. Alexander Coleman in giving a brilliant female director the spotlight here.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I plan on seeing The Hurt Locker sometime this week.

clown boy said...

Awesome review. Whatcha think of THE HURT LOCKER man? You're killin us here.

Alexander Coleman said...

Soon, clown boy, soon... Soon all shall be revealed. :)

blogcar said...

The script is genre, but quick, efficient, fun genre. Bigelow's direction and the underrated Swayze and a well-used Reeves (he's grown on me, and his spaciness works for this) elevate it.
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mrblack said...

Agreed. This is a fabulous movie, and not in an ironic, winky, quotation mark sense. Bigelow is a superb stylist - few other director's action scenes are as intimate and immersive as hers.
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