See You in the Next Life: Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break (1991)
There’s nothing ironic about Point Break. Its sensual, melodic visions of surfers and waves, chases and gunfights are not fueled by any snarky acknowledgment of the late-20th Century action film. Kathryn Bigelow creates a world obsessed with cop/robber masculinities, and love is the name of the game. No matter the rigid structuring of sexualities in films such as Commando, Die Hard, or Cobra; their blanket cover-up was bound to be ripped to shreds, and who better to showcase the genre’s inherent display of homoeroticism than the director of Near Dark and Blue Steel?
Because, even as the whole classification of action is upended, Point Break is one of the most effective rip roarin’ rides of the 1990s, fully grappling with its communal distinction to showcase action without any fake ‘bro’ sheen. This is a movie about those pesky, manly men, but it finds genuine beauty in them; not endorsement, only empathy. Point Break not being made by a male provides *one* route - to capture certain teams and structures as they are, rather than providing a sort of mythic stature towards cliché. It's celebratory and freeing in visceral expectation, as well as a dissection of its subjects. Bigelow shoots bodies in the utmost structural way; fit, rabid personalities of adrenaline against lanterns of flame and crashing water. The template, an undercover cop invading surfer subculture to gain bank robbery leads (which has been rehashed to death across DTV/B-grade modern actioners), is just as important as the plot in any other blazing classic: it’s not. What drives the nerves and sears the skin is Bigelow’s deep-rooted knack for utilizing excitement as punctuation marks within sentences of subverted dynamics, prepping the audience by building fascinating portraits of boneheads.
But they’re not just boneheads, and that’s the ultimate takeaway from Point Break. Their bonds are real, flesh and blood, molded by the sea and the air and the salt by the fire on the sand. It’s Americana without the importance stressed by male creators, simply let loose from constraints of how these characters are supposed to be viewed. The fact that the film is also one of our greatest American treasures only helps things. It’s up there with baseball and air conditioning and John Wayne; each parodied as much as they’re celebrated. The rush of Bigelow’s film goes beyond her own qualities of disruption; it’s a joyride unlike any other; as Bodhi (impeccably played with a simple smile by Patrick Swayze) says, “acid in your mouth.” A particular bank robbery/street chase provides a blueprint for Bigelow’s mastery in escalating stakes via personal relationships. When the action bursts, it isn’t only satisfying due to its construction; Point Break makes you care.
This takes the conversation back to irony and its misuse, the cluttering of it in modern revamps and reboots. Bigelow created something beautiful with sincerity. The camaraderie blooms because it’s authentic, and what’s the point of heightening that? Misconstruing it into something that isn’t innately real and passionate? Dedication helps a lot in this success. Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey, Lori Petty, Patrick Swayze, John C. McGinley; they provide humor, levity, and pain to every tired trope, and they raise fresh material to its rightful height. Through the macho movement of action, the genre’s ingrained sexuality has been perverted by the uncomfortable majority of its audience, and while its own brand of melodrama pervades a similar conversation, Bigelow, with Point Break, brings the sexiness back, and with it, the sadness, the duality, and an elemental grasp on the inevitability of action.
Its exquisite cinematography - by Don Peterman of Men in Black and Star Trek: The Voyage Home fame - provides the alluring framework for the sensual reinvigoration of the crime movie. There’s a truly otherworldly view of heat sweltering off the pavement throughout, especially in a shot where Bodhi’s legs are seen running behind a guard rail – humidity providing texture as his movement ramps down to a crawl in slow-motion. Its extremity – sky diving, surfing, cops/robbers – doesn’t stop Bigelow from soaking up the organic nature of each action; an attribute which highlights her later works such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. And although Point Break finds fluidity within Bigelow’s approach, it ultimately tells a story of how every slice of material deserves a female perspective. Because it won’t just be different, it’ll be better