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Point Break movie image Keanu Reeves and Patrick SwayzeThere is absolutely nothing about Point Break that is not wonderful.  Even the bad parts (there are no bad parts).  You can watch this movie with anyone.  Your brother.  Your boyfriend.  Your crappy ex-boyfriend.  Your friends (all friends, over twenty years of your life).  Your students.  Maybe not your mother.  But maybe your mother-in-law.

The plot of this movie is this:  Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves, inspired), an F.B.I. agent (who, defying all NCAA eligibility requirements, has just graduated into the bureau from [The?] Ohio State Law School, where he studied on a “football scholarship”) figures out a sneaky way to stop a band of surfing bank thieves (the Ex-Presidents, so named because they wear rubber masks corresponding to every at-then-living ex-president).  The good guy wins, but the winning comes with ambivalence.

But, this is not really what the movie is about.  Point Break is the most searing kind of love story—a love story in which its lovers only know in a very benighted way that they are in a love story.  Johnny Utah falls in love twice in the film.  First with his avatar, Tyler, a tiny, homuncular, foul-mouthed version of himself (played by Lori Petty).  Or, maybe the other love comes first—Johnny’s love for Bodhi (they call him the Bodhisattva, played with loose-jointed abandon by Patrick Swayze), the Zen-lite leader of a fierce gang of surfers. (Spoiler, he also leads the Ex-Presidents.  As Ronald Reagan).  You know that Johnny Utah has fallen in love with Bodhi when he chases him (in Reagan costume) down a series of narrow Los Angeles back-alleys, only to finally catch up with him in a drainage ditch. pig eye

Leaping into the ditch, Johnny lands awkwardly on his bum knee (football) and collapses in agony to the ground.  At that moment, he catches Bodhi’s eye, small, pig-like and afraid-slash-defiant, through the Reagan mask and, ahem, unloads (his gun) furiously into the bland, grey Los Angeles sky.  Never mind that the sky is rarely bland in Los Angeles, this is the part of the movie that is the most realistic.  This is how love, when it’s frustratingly unrequited, feels.  Like you’re shooting bullet after bullet into a blank, low sky.

Johnny’s love for Tyler is requited, but it’s still weird.  And this is where director Kathryn Bigelow’s genius really shows through.  Even though the plot ends with Johnny saving a white-nightied Tyler from a kidnapping, it begins more ambiguously.  Tyler is a surfer.  More, she’s a surfer who, reluctantly, teaches Johnny how to surf.  Her crabbiness is not exactly that usual movie-lady crabbiness, the kind that hides sentimentalism and heart just below its rough-hewn surface.  Tyler’s crabbiness is constitutional—she even changes out of her wetsuit crabbily, each gesture a kind of tepid gestural punch at the annoying, naïve Johnny.  Also, she looks like Johnny.  I don’t mean just a little bit.  She’s lean, with a shock of dyed black hair cropped close to her head.  Sure, she has Lori Petty’s wide, blue eyes, but the styling is more than just a little masculine.  Tyler’s not the kind of girl who wears a dress to be sexy.  She’s the kind who wears cutoffs.

roman coinThe scene I’m thinking of shows Johnny, struggling with the question of how he should reveal the truth of his job (he is an FBI agent) to his new lady.  The pair lies nude in Johnny’s black silk-sheeted bed.  Johnny faces us, his nude torso as much of a blank as his face.  Tyler’s on her stomach, breasts obscured, face in profile.  They are two sides of the same shining, Roman coin.  But, at the same time as Johnny struggles with explaining himself to Tyler, he also struggles with explaining himself to Bodhi.

And, while Johnny can redeem himself from Tyler’s bad books by rescuing her from the desert, he never really gets that chance with Bodhi.  In the film’s climactic scene, Johnny bellows at Bodhi with the fury of a man who will never get what he wants—“I am an FBI agent!” (there’s a bit more punctuation in Keanu’s performance).  The only possible outcome for the film is stalemate.  The queer-ish aesthetic of the film can’t accommodate the romance between two actually male characters.  Masculine romance can only be partial and networked (like the love that girds the Ex-Presidents, which features at its base a system of care that looks at once brotherly and romantic—think of Bodhi’s tender ministrations to the injured Roach (James LeGros) or his insistence on tempering the attack of a rival group of surfers (“Back off, Warchild.  Seriously”)—or queerly heterosexual (Tyler and Bodhi’s former romance, Tyler and Johnny’s new romance, both of which seem to invert traditional power-dynamics in the service of sexual tension).

There are all sorts of ways that the assemblage of masculinity, silenced sexuality and gory violence unpleasantly reminds us of the world’s encroaching horrors, but that wasn’t Bigelow’s main focus, at least not in this film.   The medium in which she lets this erotic drama play out is adrenaline.  The surfing, the skydiving, even the manic, mask-wearing bank robberies—all of these are stand-ins for the one high-wire thrill Johnny and Bodhi can’t experience.  mindlessThis is the film that, for me, best typifies that strange text of the nineties, the erotic bromance, and it does so because, in Point Break, unlike other queer action films of the nineties—I might mention Juice, I might mention Face/Off—the adrenaline is not supplied by gunplay alone.  Violence is, of course, part of Point Break’s plan, but alongside the scenes of agitated theft Bigelow places more open, more nourishing experiences in water and air. By associating Bodhi’s lessons to Johnny not only with death, but also with elemental pleasure, Bigelow offers up the possibility, however slim, that the romance that motivates this plot could, potentially, come to fruition.  In the final scene, Johnny lets Bodhi return to the waves of a hundred-year storm that will surely destroy him.  And the lesson he’s learned is this: there are some pleasures, mindless yet focused, bodily yet suspended, that the world—and the law—can’t touch.

If I haven’t already made it clear, Point Break rewards countless viewings in a way that few other films can.  I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Gary Busey and his two meatball subs, the Sex Wax subplot, or Anthony Kiedis’s Legolas hair.

Claire Jarvis: Welsh Witch


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  1. Thanks for this! I had, and still have, an extraordinary amount of love for this movie. I was 20 the summer it came out — that pretty much tells you that Keanu was IT. But I also adored Patrick Swayze. It was fun to see him promote Ghost while Bodhi’d out, and then wonderful to watch him go all in, balls out, and just enjoy the sheer silliness of it. He was so game. I will never not miss him. Whenever this rolls around on TV, I lose time getting sucked into it. And if it’s got less than a half-hour left, I DVR it even though I still have it on DVD and VHS. P.S. – Mom also loves it.


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