Kathryn Bigelow - Point Break (1991) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Kathryn Bigelow – Point Break (1991)

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Kathryn Bigelow had a mainstream hit with the philosophical heist film Point Break.  Kyle and Andrew's back-and-forth seeks to settle an important question - is Point Break better remembered for it's iconic struggle, or best left behind as a detour in her career?

That's enoughKyle Commentary BannerSo here we are at what was probably Bigelow's most famous film prior to The Hurt LockerPoint Break was always one of those movies I knew of growing up because it came out just before I hit the age where I was firmly within the demographic movies like that were (and are) totally inappropriately marketed to. It never quite registered as a pinnacle of late '80s/early '90s action movies, but it was always there lurking in the shadows.

It doesn't seem right to call it a cult classic (maybe it is—I have no idea how much it made on release), but it seems to be remembered that way. All of this mostly makes sense to me considering how much of the movie seems to fit the familiar action movie tropes of the era while still managing to undercut some of those in sometimes interesting ways. It's important to emphasize "sometimes" there.  What was your impression this time around, and did it differ from how you remembered the movie from whenever the last time you saw it was?AndrewCommentaryBannerIt's really difficult for me to get a proper context for the movie because of how much it's been referenced since.  The biggest one for me is Hot Fuzz, where the blend of philosophy and action in Point Break seems to have given the bumbling cop his entire focus in life.  But, honestly, I didn't have much of a reaction to it outside of that funny reference before watching it again, and now that I'm able to put it into a bit more context with the rest of Bigelow's career it's unlikely that it'll be a film I revisit.

Point Break isn't plain, exactly, but it's not that impressive either.  The same kind of genre blending that punctuated Blue Steel and Near Dark is in play, but it's like the idea of mixing philosophy into action films directly is the start and stop point for the film.  So instead of this complex mix of images bouncing off one another we end up with a bunch of pretty people basically sitting around between action scenes going, "Man, isn't thinking great?" before stuff happens.Wax it offTiny Kyle CommentaryBlue Steel is a good reference point for me when starting to contextualize the movie in Bigelow's career. Both movies are building pretty directly on some established conventions, while trying to interject something new. Blue Steel is the outright winner in that sense, because it's trying to do something that's not only more bold and difficult but also more culturally valuable. The blend of action and philosophy in Point Break is kind of an interesting idea IF the philosophy somehow adheres to or comments on the bank robberies and violence, but it doesn't—and as you said, it falls flat most of the time because of that.

I didn't dislike it this time around by any means, but the quality lies usually at a point equidistant between Patrick Swayze's surprisingly good performance and that of Keanu Reeves, who is in the movie. Strangely enough, The Swayze is pretty well THE strength here, playing Bodhi as someone who is unhinged beyond a point of repair but hiding it semi-successfully under all that philosophy. If the movie shifted its focus ever so slightly, such that the philosophical elements were to be taken as a cover for deeper issues rather than at face level, there might be something truly unique going on.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryThe cast is actually perfect for this kind of philosophy meets action structure.  I know I'm in a minority, but Keanu Reeves is one of the most perfectly cast people in Hollywood when it comes to action films since he is able to blend himself into the absurd surroundings so well.  His presence works really well here considering he plays a cop that barely has his own identity and ends up adapting bits of himself to fit each world without necessarily having an effect on either.  I liked, too, how Bigelow did some subtle differing in the action scenes between those shared with Swayze and the others with Gary Busey as they reflect Reeves adapting just enough to fit into their worlds.  For the Swayze scenes, either as antagonist or assisting, we have these crisp and bright open shots where they could generally escape in any direction but choose to go toward the conflict.  The contrasting Busey scenes have the characters taking up most of the frame in slightly more out-of-control shots as though this is who they're stuck fighting and this is what they have to do.

Building on the tail end of your last comment, it's not so strange that Swayze is the strength of the movie.  He had come out of the '80s as a spiritual icon for the era in a ton of ways.  Red Dawn had him fighting the Cold War on our behalf, in Road House he was protecting the virtues of small-town America with some ass-kicking, and in Ghost he guides America through to the afterlife.  In that regard it also comes as little surprise that the strongest visual of the movie is Bodhi, dressed as Ronald Reagan, carrying a gas station flame thrower to torch the evidence of his illict deeds.  It's an awesome visual to begin with considering the Reagan administration's tendency to do terrible things in the name of their philosophy and then get away with it via public apology, but also as an excellent symbol of Bigelow having the great Swayze torch everything his past films incidentally advocated.ReaganTiny Kyle CommentaryThe surprise for me with Swayze's character being the high point is more a result of his character being the source of all the philosophical material, which ends up being a major element that bogs down the movie—as far as his star power at the time, that makes perfect sense and I think he demonstrates how and why he got to that point pretty well here. I can't agree on Reeves, who I don't hate on principle like many do, but think is terrible here — but I like what you're saying about how the action sequences are shot. That works especially well in the first skydiving scene, which is undercut with tension over whatever bad thing is inevitably on its way for Reeves' character despite the sense of freedom the situation holds and represents for all involved.

That also brings me to a point I both appreciated and cringed at — Bigelow's willingness to make Bodhi a truly bad character while still trying to maintain the relationship between him and Utah (the person, not the state). He is genuinely ok putting Lori Petty's character at risk for his own safety. After all the time spent "selling" Bodhi to the audience in terms of his appeal to the other characters, in the end he's still nothing but a coward with no allegiance to anyone but himself. It works to make him a more interesting figure (as opposed to trying, like a lot of movies would, to keep him in some flawed, Robin Hood-esque ideal) — but the situation also serves to underline the way the movie uses the Tyler character as a prop throughout. Once she is saved/released, she's out of the movie and no longer matters. It's not at all an uncommon maneuver for movies like this, but it was surprising to me given the other 3 films we've watched that no effort was made to twist or undercut that convention.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryTyler is actually why I'm going to continue defending Reeves.  Point Break is the first film directed, but not written, by Bigelow.  So I can't really fault Reeves when he tries to get Tyler back after his cover is blown and he half-yells, "Why can't I say what I really mean" to himself.  He does as good a job selling that line as possible considering the rest of the film, save Bodhi, is intent on spelling things out to us as much as possible.  Look, also, at the scene where Reeves is trying to get Busey to open up to him.  All they do is yell the obvious bait at each other and then it's off to the next scene.

The script is why I'm having such a hard time finding things to really like outside of Bodhi.  Either people are outlining things to us as plainly as possible or we end up with sequences that could have been an interesting contrast to the main plot, like when they accidentally blow someone else's long-term investigation.  Reeves' cop isn't in deep enough to really become addicted to the job like the strung out undercover meth cop is, so I struggle really hard to find what that scene may be for other than to give a quick unnecessary emotional beat that, hey, cops, you may not be perfect.In piecesTiny Kyle CommentaryThe movie does seem invested in convincing us that Reeves is the worst FBI agent ever for no real purpose. And I had forgotten that this was the first of the movies she directed that she didn't write, though that's painfully obvious, as you mention, while the movie is going on. I genuinely don't have an answer for this, so I pose it to you — what do you think it was that attracted her to this screenplay then? Or do we chalk this one up to opportunity simply knocking in this particular form following Blue Steel?

Newer Andrew cutout commentarySo far, and looking to Bigelow's future films, she is kind of like Stephen Soderbergh in terms of her taste in genre - which is to say that she doesn't have one.  Yes, this is another cop film, but the similarities between Point Break and Blue Steel end there.  The script presents another opportunity to do what has been her consistent trademark so far, which is blurring moral lines and gendered behavior until they don't have a consistent meaning.  But for the specific content that becomes a very difficult question to answer, especially where Tyler is concerned.  Bigelow's films haven't been content to shoving girls into a corner to get abused and over the course of Point Break that's exactly what happens.  I was really impressed with the way Tyler was handled in the beginning, taking the reins of her relationship with Utah and being one of the stronger mentors in his life, but after she gets angry with him and leaves she gets shoved off into a cage on an entirely different movie.  So I can see the appeal up until the last act of the film because there's just enough ambiguity leading up to Utah's decision to blast the sky that I'm still with Point Break.  I can't help but feel that someone watched a work-print at that point and wondered why he shot the sky so they decided to kick the climax off - which ends up working as one extended sequence from the skydive to the final surf.

I know that the film is already almost two hours long, but by forcing the film to move toward the climax after all that it short cuts the most interesting parts of the film.  Bodhi is an out-and-out villain from that point on, Utah the good guy now forced into a bad situation, and Tyler the damsel-in-distress that we never see or hear from ever again.  All the philosophical conversations are gone and this would have been the best time to have them instead of sticking us in another action film.

But the skeletal appeal of the screenplay is obvious, and I can easily see what attracted Bigelow to the project based on the first two acts, but I don't think there was enough leeway toward the end to make the entire film her own.  After all, it's not the failed robbery or the death of Agent Angelo that anyone remembers - but the ambiguous rage of Utah and the allure of the cult of Bodhi.StrappedTiny Kyle CommentaryThat's spot-on about the last act — and considering that she continued to be for the most part a studio director for the rest of her career it'll be an interesting thing to chart. Maybe what seems disjointed to me here when held up against the previous films is the sense of interference you mention. I'm realizing now that I don't remember Strange Days as clearly as I may have thought, but I certainly don't remember that movie seeming like one that had the marks of heavy studio meddling or tempering for commercial viability.

And the Soderbergh comparison is a good one considering how varied some of the upcoming films are. So far we've got a common thread of subverting genre conventions, but no real common genres. She also latches on characters and groups on the fringe of society, though I think we'll see that change later.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryI'm looking forward to it to, because Point Break was Bigelow's first mainstream success with a budget of 20-ish million and pushing a near 90 million return, and the voyeuristic dystopia film is the one she decided to make next.  There's enough interesting ideas to see why Point Break's lingered around in the memory but in the end it feels less like a Bigelow film and more an excuse for a lot of executives to get pretty shots of Swayze and Reeves doing their thing.  There's still a lot of those, especially with the way Bigelow frames Swayze curing through the wall of water that is about to crush him, but it pales next to the intense shafts of blue light that threatened Curtis in Blue Steel or the reversed sexualities of Near Dark.Break itTiny Kyle CommentarySo I think we're agreed — Point Break isn't an outright bad movie, but it's the least interesting of her career so far. To that point, I am drawing a blank on anything else we may have missed. Care to lead us out with a Bodhi-esque philosophical musing?


Newer Andrew cutout commentaryIn reflection of both my lukewarm reaction to this film, and the imagery I recall from the next, I must invoke the aggressive philosophy of one Malcolm Tucker who in a difficult spot said, "I am extremely miffed about today's events and, in my quest to try and make you understand the level of my unhappiness, I'm likely to use an awful lot of what we would call "Violent Sexual Imagery".'

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Next: Strange Days!

Bigelow with text

Posted by Andrew

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