Point Break at 30: One of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Films

(Disclaimer: This feature article contains spoilers)

From playing maverick LAPD cop Jack Traven in Speed (1994) to becoming the one as Neo in The Matrix trilogy (and soon, the upcoming fourth film) and the indestructible former assassin John Wick in the John Wick series, Keanu Reeves is often synonymous with the action genre.

Then, there was Point Break. The one where Reeves made his first foray into the action-movie territory after spending his earlier years appearing in dramas (1986’s River’s Edge, 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons) and of course, the 1989 sci-fi comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The latter became such a cultural phenomenon that Reeves was commonly associated with his iconic laid-back dorky role as Ted “Theodore” Logan back in the day.

So, two years later when he took a surprising career turn to play a young FBI agent in Point Break, it’s kind of hard to believe this was the same actor who got famous in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Released during the 1991 summer-movie season on the same month of July where Terminator 2: Judgment Day dominated the US box office, Point Break may fail to crack through the top spot and debuted at No. 4 instead. But the film manages to end its theatrical run with over US$83 million worldwide against a US$24 million budget.

Written by W. Peter IIiff, whose future screenplay credits include Patriot Games (1992) and Varsity Blues (1999), Point Break centres on an ex-Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback-turned-rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Reeves) going undercover as a first-time surfer in California beach to find out about the identity of the elusive bank robbers disguising as former US presidents in rubber masks.

Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) in "Point Break" (1991)

From there, he learns how to surf with the help of Tyler (Lori Petty) and later getting to know Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and his gang of surfers. And as it turns out, Bodhi and his gang are actually the same wanted bank robbers that he and his partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) been looking for all this while.

When I first saw Point Break a few years later after the film was released, it took me a while to get used to seeing Keanu Reeves in an action role. Frankly, he is surprisingly convincing as Johnny Utah and handles the action part pretty well. But the film really belongs to Patrick Swayze, whose coolly enigmatic turn as Bodhi is undoubtedly one of his best roles ever seen.

Let’s not forget about Kathryn Bigelow either, the director who made Point Break such a beloved cult classic of the 90s. This is the same filmmaker who gave us the 1987 vampire western Near Dark and the 1990 violent cop thriller Blue Steel. And just like her two films, her distinctive visual flair made the otherwise typical cops-vs-robbers action film all the more unique.

From the moment the film opens with a Zen-like credits scene alternating between the footage of surfers riding the waves and Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah showing off his shooting skill at the FBI Academy in the rain, Bigelow knows well how to capture one’s attention from the get-go. Of course, credits also go to Donald Peterman’s gorgeous cinematography as well as Mark Isham’s evocative score, both of which help to elevate Point Break as among the most visually and technically impressive action films ever made in the 90s era.

The elaborate chase scene in "Point Break" (1991)

Speaking of action, Bigelow stages all the scenes with enough verve. The elaborate chase sequence is among the highlights here, beginning with Utah and Pappas in a high-speed car pursuit along the streets of California. The chase even continues with another scene where the camera follows Utah, who’s on foot chasing Bodhi from the burning gas station before cutting through narrow alleyways and passing the housing area. We see them breaking through one house to another, jumping fences and even at one point, Bodhi tries to stall Utah by throwing a pitbull at him. That brief scene alone, where Utah ends up kicking the pitbull away was reportedly filmed using both actual and fake dogs and combined them seamlessly with Howard Smith’s clever editing.

For the entire foot chase itself, Bigelow wanted it to be as kinetic as possible and she did so by utilising a Steadicam-like shot dubbed as “Pogo-Cam”, which was actually a gyro-stabilised camera rig mounted on a body-length pole. This, in turn, allows the cameraman to shoot the actors on the run from behind or even in front of them.

Bigelow also pushes the envelope in some of the more complex action set-pieces including the way she filmed the surfing scenes up close, making you feel as if you are part of the ride. And yes, the scenes were shot practically using mostly pro-surfer stunt doubles. Swayze himself also did a lot of his own surfing stunts — a result that caused him four broken ribs while filming the scenes.

If that’s not enough, he even performed his own skydiving stunt (Swayze was already an experienced skydiver), making over 50 jumps for the film. There are two skydiving scenes in this film but the second one impresses me the most.

The skydiving scene in "Point Break" (1991)

Here, we see Bodhi yelled “Adios, amigo!” to Utah before jumping out of the plane on his back wearing a parachute. Utah later braved himself by diving headfirst without a parachute while holding the gun left behind by Bodhi. It was a bravura moment that Utah risked his life to catch up on Bodhi before he successfully grabs ahold of his body as they continue freefalling down the sky. With only a few seconds left before they hit the ground, Utah has no choice but to drop his gun and pulls the cord of Bodhi’s parachute at the very last minute.

Looking at that scene alone today, the second skydiving scene in Point Break is among the prime examples of how these dangerous stunts were all filmed in a practical manner. Interestingly enough, the scene was made possible using the combination of Swayze’s own skydiving jump, stunt doubles and close-up shots of both Swayze and Keanu Reeves. For the latter, the film utilised a specially-built crane rig with a telescoping arm for both actors, which made them as if they were floating while skydiving with the help of a camera shooting from below.

Point Break was also notable for Bigelow’s then-husband, James Cameron’s involvement as the executive producer of the film and even did uncredited work with her in revising most of W. Peter Iliff’s script. Believe it or not, the film was initially a project during the late 80s when Ridley Scott originally attached to direct the film. Reeves wasn’t even the first choice back then as the studio (20th Century Fox) favoured other potential candidates such as Matthew Broderick, Johnny Depp and Charlie Sheen to play Johnny Utah. But the production fell through before James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow took over the project, with the latter insisted on casting Keanu Reeves for the lead role.

Patrick Swayze plays Bodhi in "Point Break" (1991)

Following Point Break, it only took four years before Bigelow returning to the director’s chair in the underrated sci-fi thriller Strange Days in 1995. In 2010, she famously made history as the first woman to win the prestigious Best Director award at the Oscars for The Hurt Locker. At the time of writing, her last directorial effort to date was the 2017 true-story drama Detroit.

The success of Point Break led to a brief trend of combining action genre and skydiving, as evidently seen in 1994’s Drop Zone and Terminal Velocity. Then in 2015, director Ericson Core was responsible for the unnecessary Point Break remake with Luke Bracey and Edgar Ramirez playing Utah and Bodhi. Despite given a bigger budget (US$105 million), the remake failed to recapture the same moviemaking magic (even with all the hard efforts of using practical stunts) and was considered a huge box-office flop.