Raiders of the Lost Archive – “Point Break” (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)



As summer starts to come to a close it is with great pleasure that we find a way to celebrate the awesomeness that is the Oregon Coast especially in such a grand cinematic way. The North Coast as been home to many an iconic flick – Twilight, Short Circuit, Free Willy, Kindergarden Cop and, of course, The Goonies – but it has never seen the likes of Keanu and Patrick in the pouring rain at Indian Beach.

Raider/Contributor Phil Oppenheim tells the awesome tale of “Point Break.”

The Beach Boys tried to warble their way into convincing us that they had the secret to happiness, the Endless Summer of the surfer’s paradise of Southern California.  But we here in Oregon know better:  we love all four of our seasons, and the spiritual renewal each turn of the cycle brings with it.   The shorter days and refreshing snap in the air are telling us that our fall is around the corner, but before it comes, let’s celebrate the season gone by one last time.

Point Break, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and released in the middle of July 1991, is more than just a dumb summer action flick.  It is that, of course, but it’s also awesome, and the ultimate summer bromance movie.  For the uninitiated: Point Break is ostensibly a crime pic about Presidents Reagan, Carter, Nixon, and LBJ, the bank robbery spree they perpetuate, and the hotshot FBI agent who vows to bring them to justice.  The ex-prezzes aren’t Rogue Executives (unfortunately), but wigged-out wiseguys in rubber masks who roll banks for high-octane thrills, and our G-man hero is Johnny Utah, essayed by Keanu Reeves in one of his most “naturalistic” performances (which is to say that it’s hard to tell if he realizes that he’s supposed to be starring in a movie or reading the script for the first time).   And it gets better: Johnny learns from his grizzled, unhinged FBI partner (played by a grizzled, unhinged Gary Busey) that local surfers might be the culprits; to help him get inside the heads of the criminals, Johnny goes undercover with a crowd of surfers (Gaggle? Flock? Murder? Parliament?  Do surfers have a more colorful collective noun?  These dudes should), and becomes soul-mates with Bodhi, the bro-Brahmin, the awesomest surf-philosopher-guru of them all (played in mulleted glory by Patrick Swayze).

“Dude, where’s my karma?”

What unspools during the film’s duration are fistfights, gunfights, smackdowns (physical and verbal), car chases, drug busts, surfing battles, gang battles, surf-gang battles, and parachute-less jumps out of airplanes (one with gunplay) — all stylishly whisked together in a movie so gnarly that you half-expect it to high-five itself.  It’s totally, manically awesome.

There’s that pesky, ubiquitous, trans-generational term of approval again.  Awesome.  I’m using the word here in its Hollywood blockbuster meaning, rooted in surfer-and-SoCal patois : it’s logic-defying, male-skewing, senselessly destructive spectacle – the milieu and oeuvre of auteurs like Michael Bay, say – the early’-‘90s apotheosis of which is Point Break.  When Johnny Utah tours his new office at the FBI, his skeptical superior tries to take him down a few notches by dismissing him as “young, dumb, and full of cum.”  That’s awesome.

Bigelow’s movie digs into the male-bonding of cinematic awesomeness as its theme too, as you might expect from the director of more contemplative studies of masculinity and violence like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Detroit.   It’s pretty clear that it’s bro-love at first sight when Johnny meets Bodhi, for instance; Bodhi’s name itself has a rich trifecta of meanings for their relationship (Bodhi, as in Johnny’s spiritual guru; “buddy,” as in his pal; “body,” as in his ripped physicality). Their tragic relationship follows a bro-meets-bro/bro-loses-bro trajectory (including a romantic subplot threat in the person of the tomboyish and gender-neutrally named Tyler Endicott, played by Lori Petty), and is punctuated by lots of culturally sanctioned public displays of (dude) affection (bro-hugs, football tackles, shirtless slug-fests, etc).  The PD(d)As are most iconically symbolized by the dudes’ bro-handshakes, spaced at dramatic highlights throughout the film (including mid-air, while plummeting from a plane). 

Mid-air awesomeness.

Bigelow frames the bro-shake’s symbolic apotheosis at the film’s detumescent finale, when a limp Johnny handcuffs himself to an ascendant Bodhi – providing both a brilliant summation of the fellas’ relationship and a masterful allusion to one of cinema’s most tragic bromances-gone-bad, Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 adaptation of Frank Norris’s McTeague, the silent masterpiece Greed (cue the knowing head-nods from film-schoolers).  Johnny tells Bodhi to “vaya con dios” at the end of their summer bromance, but the audience knows their summer together stay with him forever.

Bodhi at the beach (Indian Beach, that is).

I’ve gotta be honest: there isn’t much actual screentime for the Oregon sequences of Point Break.  But it’s in these last fifteen minutes of the film’s finale (shot in and around Wheeler and Cannon Beach) that the film reaches its dramatic crescendo, making up in awesomeness what it might lack in duration.  And I’d argue that it’s nigh impossible to hike around Ecola State Park down to Indian Beach today and not reflect on Johnny Utah’s rain-drenched goodbye to Bodhi.  Is that the surf glistening on Keanu’s face – or do I see bro-tears running down his cheeks?

Love means never having to say “I’m soggy.”

Watch: Point Break, available for free on Crackle.com.

Check it out: Point Break has become a cult favorite, and some admirers of its macho insanity have created a live stage version of the movie.  Unfortunately for us, the show at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom has already come and gone, but maybe we can lobby the production to make a return trip?   Visit them at Point Break Live, and drop them a line!

Note that the live show always pulls someone out of the audience to play the movie’s lead role, arguing that an unprepared dude off of the street would best approximate Keanu’s stunned/stoned/stunted performance.  Think you’ve got what it takes to be the next Johnny Utah?  Vaya con dios, dude.

For future study: the surfers in Point Break tour the world in search of the perfect wave.  If you, too, long for the ultimate barrel, you’ll want to watch Bruce Brown’s 1966 gorgeous, landmark surf documentary – a key influence on Point BreakEndless Summer.  It’s awesome.

  • Written by: Phil Oppenheim
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