In the coastal town of Los Angeles, a gang of bank robbers call themselves the ex-presidents. commit their crimes while wearing masks of ex-presidents Reagan, Carter, Nixon and Johnson. The F.B.I. believes that the members of the gang could be surfers and send young agent Johnny Utah undercover at the beach to mix with the surfers and gather information. Utah meets surfer Bodhi and gets drawn into the lifestyle of his new friend.
Kathryn Bigelow, true to form, sets out her store from the opening sequence of Point Break. The title drifts across a shot of a gently rippling ocean surface before we move into crystal slo-mo shots of a lone surfer riding the Pacific waves to Mark Isham's portentous score. Intercut is Keanu Reeves in a rain-drenched T-shirt rolling around on an FBI shooting range, blowing the crap out of pop-up targets with a handgun that sounds like an anti-tank cannon in a portaloo while our anonymous surfer performs graceful curls and dives as water washes across the screen. This, we discern, is going to be a film about violence, and violence is going to be extremely sexy.
It should be no surprise that Point Break was originally conceived as a project for that other proponent of the cinema du look Ridley Scott. Instead it went to Bigelow whose previous films had demonstrated an impressive visual style and a taste for balletic, explosive violence. Here, as in her vampire western Near Dark, two genres are crashed together: the surf movie and the heist-thriller.
Johnny Utah (Reeves) is the ex-star quarterback FBI agent gone undercover to bust The Ex Presidents, a band of marauding surfers who finance their summers catching waves worldwide by robbing banks. In order to do this he must infiltrate the secretive world of the surf dude, and as a consequence spend a fair amount of time in figure hugging wetsuits or the bed of his dudette tutor, Tyler (Petty). Things get gnarley however when her adrenaline-junkie pals, led by Bodhi (Swayze), turn out to be the beach-bum hoods and Utah begins not only to understand, but also to yearn for their seductive, nomadic lifestyle.
Point Break rides the crest of its own ludicrous wave with loopy abandon, continually threatening to wipe-out but always just catching the curl at the last moment. The plot, such as it is, makes less sense than much of the dialogue ("Maaan, it jacks up, dropped down into the pit... It's twenny-five straight down and maaan... your balls are about this big" being one of the more coherent examples of screenwriter W. Peter Iliff's surf verbiage). But, like its studly young cast, Bigelow's direction is primarily something to look at — a collection of gleaming, sundrenched surfaces. Donald Peterman shoots the movie with the polished look of burnished chrome. Everything looks gorgeous, from the crashing, sapphire waves photographed through a headlight-illuminated beach football game, to a billow of orange dust past a roadside Harley. This is the California dream at the height of its potency.
It's not above poking fun at itself either. There's the playfulness of casting Reeves as a faux surf dude "Why can't I just carry this thing and look dumb?" he enquires of his first surfboard. When a colleague takes the piss out of the whole plan by performing a frighteningly accurate Ted Logan impression, he simply looks on confused. (Not that the dumbness is always so deliberate: "The 50 year storm... what's that?" Reeves inquires at one point. Hmmm, it'll probably be a storm that comes every 50 years Keanu). Or there's the fact that the clue that finally identifies them is a tanline on a surfer's arse caught while he mooned the CCTV — a fatal, ahem, crack in their plan.
But Bigelow gets serious when it comes to the octane quotient. She proffers stock action sequences, but in each case gives them enough of an off-beam twist so that the film becomes a building symphony of unique, inventive movement. There's spectacular surfing, of course, but the most striking scene is shot by moonlight (or rather an effective day-for-night filter). An incredibly tense stakeout ends with Reeves having seven bells beaten out of him by a completely naked, extremely upset, woman. A fast'n' furious car chase is followed by an even more effective, and extended, chase on foot — most directors would have staged the sequence the opposite way round. And then there are the utterly breathtaking skydiving sequences. Sure, it's all show for show's sake; you could crossfade from Reeves shaking his mane free of water in slo-mo to a sweating can of Schlitz on a bed of ice and you'd have a beer commercial. But you'd have the best looking beer commercial ever.
Part of the uniqueness of Point Break is that it's one of a very few action movies directed by a woman. And, in a sense, it gives Bigelow licence to go further towards borderline laughable machismo than most male directors given that she always has the defence of a wry feminist piss-take of the whole testosterone-sodden genre. Or maybe she just likes a bloody good actioner.
Point Break remains as good a ride as you can get.