Lawyers Don’t Surf

Point Break : Is there any point to a reboot of one of the greatest action movies of the 1990s?
by Philip Matthews

Like Patti Smith said, the boy looked at Johnny. We all looked at Johnny. Has there ever been a more ridiculous and brilliant name for an FBI agent in the movies than Johnny Utah and has there ever been a more appropriately beautiful, dim and earnest young man to play him than the Keanu Reeves of Point Break? Point Break is a movie in which the boys are consistently prettier than the girls and the girls don’t mind.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Point Break was released almost simultaneously with a very important movie by Bigelow’s then-husband, James Cameron. Point Break was out in the US on July 12, 1991. Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day was in cinemas just 11 days earlier. Both were hits but one felt like the end of something and the other felt like the start of something, viewed from this distance at least. Would a musical analogy help? That was also the year that punk broke, according to the title of a Sonic Youth tour film that was really about the moment of Nirvana and the start of grunge. There is a music biz truism that says grunge put the hair-metal pretty boys out of business. Point Break is such a Los Angeles film and its tanned, long-haired and highly sexualised surfers turned bank robbers, who go shopping for CDs at Tower Records when they’re not at the beach, would soon look like museum pieces to be filed away with Skid Row and Axl Rose. The film is set as another California summer is ending. Let’s just agree that 1991 was a transitional year. And that this is a film in which someone beats up Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In so many ways, Point Break feels like the last 80s movie, almost the looser, more exhilarating and non-bombastic answer film to something like Top Gun. “There’s too much testosterone here,” says Tyler, played by Lori Petty, during one otherwise all-male beach party or another, but the dumb macho competitiveness of Top Gun is taken that much less seriously. Macho dialogue here is deliberately inscrutable or absurd, almost a parody – witness Angelo Pappas’ (Gary Busey) reminiscence about the good old days in LA before “the air got dirty and the sex got clean”. Only a maniacal scenery-chewer like Busey, or John McGinley as his hot-headed boss, could pull off a line like that.

Tyler is a woman with a tomboyish haircut and a man’s name and she is naturally Johnny’s love interest in this most un-macho of action films. She is initially Johnny’s mentor and guide in the arcane world of LA surfing, and she dominates the relationship – at this point in his career, Reeves was still one of the most feminised of male movie stars, never afraid to be passive. Despite, or maybe because of, Reeves’ lack of range in the part, it still stands as one of his greatest roles – alongside The Matrix, River’s Edge, the Bill and Ted films and A Scanner Darkly.

A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s mind-bending film of the druggy Philip K Dick novel, presented an older, sadder, bearded and more complicated Keanu Reeves in a part that could almost be a sequel to Point Break. In the Linklater film, Reeves is Bob Arctor, an agent so deep undercover in a world of hard drug users that he is eventually required to investigate himself. It works as a PK Dick riff on identity and perceptions of reality and it also works because it’s Keanu Reeves. The Matrix, too, runs in a similar way: the undercover guy has no ordinary interior life and is able to operate more fully inside the world he infiltrates, posing as another person or as an ideal version of himself.

Does that double identity explain his look of deep concentration throughout? Even Johnny’s girlfriend, Tyler, says that he concentrates like a child with a school project – later, she asks, “Don’t you have a soul?” Johnny is beautiful and lonely, and there is no real self to him. It’s easy watching Point Break to forget that he is a cop. You suspect that he does at times, too. There is a fantastic moment, when he goes skydiving with the guys he is supposed to be investigating, in which you realise that this gang and its “radical” (in the surf sense) activities have given him a belonging, a meaning or a sense of purpose that nothing else has – not the police, not his family, not sport and not sex.

Tyler may be the official love interest, in the way that Kelly McGillis’ Charlie (another girl with a boy’s name, subtext fans) was for Tom Cruise’s Maverick in Top Gun, but desire or sexual energy has other outlets. Why is the bedroom so cold? Johnny’s black sheets make it the darkest room we see in the film, a mausoleum where Reeves and Petty are as still as statues. Actually, the most sexual image in Point Break doesn’t involve Petty at all. It’s the one in which Johnny and his quarry, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), emerge from within a rumpled, tangled-up parachute after skydiving together. It is all about them. It starts with them – a montage of Swayze surfing and Reeves shooting targets in the rain – and it ends with them, again in the rain, on a terminal beach.

For me, that downbeat ending of Point Break – was the hunt really worth it? – is almost a match to the ending of Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty more than 20 years later. That last shot of Jessica Chastain on the military plane after the mission to locate and kill Osama Bin Laden was accomplished feels just as ambivalent: has all that effort changed anything?

To suggest that the way the boys look, and look at each other, in Point Break is a side effect of Bigelow’s gender would be limiting – the novelty of a great action director being (how amazing!) a woman, was tired two decades before her Zero Dark Thirty Oscar. There is the inescapable fact that Point Break is an action classic regardless of the director’s gender. “Action cinema is pure cinema,” Bigelow has said, and Point Break is all about sensation and constant movement, with a built-in philosophy commenting on the style. The search for ever greater adrenaline thrills by the characters in the movie corresponds to the ever more exciting set pieces – the raid on the house, the car chase, the long foot chase across what seems like half of Los Angeles, two sky-diving scenes, all the surfing scenes, the bank robberies. A cop says admiringly of the bank robbing surfers that “they control the room”. As do Bigelow and her crew in the set pieces, which are constantly exciting and demonstrate a highly developed awareness of space and movement.

In an interview with Cinema Papers a year after Point Break was released, Bigelow talked about the action directors she appreciated: the George Miller of Mad Max, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Walter Hill and Sam Peckinpah. “It’s high impact with emotional involvement.” An artist before she became a film-maker, she has also talked about the rawness of B-movies as being akin to the abstract painting of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. It certainly looks like there’s some Peckinpah in Point Break’s action montages. The antisocial violence and male bonding in Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising was an admitted influence on Bigelow – you can see that in Point Break as well.

Point Break is also largely free of moralising about good and bad, or law and order. “I wanted to dispense with all the movie tropes: the clean through-line, the idea of the hero,” Bigelow said in an interview with Time magazine in 2013. It’s easy to scoff at Swayze’s sun-bleached Mr Spiritual, “a modern savage” who is “searching for the ultimate ride”, which is death, of course. There is a mystic nihilism to it all and a reverence for the same things that Bodhi and his gang revere: the size and immense power of the ocean, the distance from the sky to land, the speed at which you fall.

“Like some kind of tribe, they got their own language,” Busey’s Angelo Pappas says of the cult-like surfers, and there is something counter-cultural about them, which the film never really frowns upon. They wear the masks of ex-presidents, with Swayze leading as Reagan and James LeGros wisecracking as Nixon, and two real-life surfers wearing the masks of Carter and Johnson, and they liberate money from banks much like underground militant groups of the 70s did. Their robbery is intended to be inspirational; it’s about “the human spirit,” Bodhi explains. That’s Bodhi, short for Bodhisattva.

But in a time of hacking and cybercrime, does anyone even rob banks anymore? Consult the trailer for the Point Break remake, which went online in late May and was widely viewed, widely circulated and widely hated. Within seconds, the original’s theme is made thunderously obvious, as an “ancient proverb” appears on screen to tell us that “there are some who do not fear death for they are more afraid of not really living”. Good to have Point Break explained so succinctly.

Everything in the trailer has a green-ish high tech look, closer to the metallic sheen of Terminator 2 and its sequels than the smoky light of the original Point Break. Everything is bigger: now these “extreme athletes” use their skills to “disrupt their international financial markets” in one James Bond-ish Eurotrash setting after another. Holding up a bank in Santa Monica or Pasadena just isn’t enough anymore. One of the appealing things about Point Break is its strong sense of place, the LA roads, suburbs and beaches; the new one looks like it favours generic movie locations with splashes of CGI.

Expect to see the Point Break reboot by the end of the year. Reboot is a more terrifying word than remake because it suggests the intention to open up a whole new franchise, although that isn’t always a bad thing (JJ Abrams’ Star Trek and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins were reboots, but then again, so was Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist and Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead). There are plenty of cult films that have survived bad or pointless remakes or reboots (The Wicker Man, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jurassic Park, Planet of the Apes) and you can still enjoy the first two Terminators without ever having to think about its own, brain-tangling reboot, Terminator Genisys. Another 80s cult film, Highlander, is up for a reboot too, but I never understood the appeal of that, not even for a second. Point Break is a trickier thing, though, because it would be so easy to take its action movie outline and miss its intended and accidental nuances.

In the new Point Break, Ray Winstone is playing Angelo Pappas and if that sentence makes your heart sink, then it might be buoyed by the news that the new Bodhi is Edgar Ramirez, famous for his Carlos the Jackal in Olivier Assayas’ 70s terrorism mini-series, Carlos. In the trailer at least, he has a beatific look and you could allow yourself to think that the whole thing of violently “liberating” money makes this an unofficial epilogue to his Carlos activities. Luke Bracey looks like he might be young, dumb and Australian enough – he was even in Home and Away – to qualify as Johnny Utah. Yes, he will still be called Johnny Utah. He has to be. But does he have that Keanu serenity? Does anyone? Will the girl still be called Tyler? And will Johnny still be largely uninterested in her? These things matter.