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Junkfood Cinema: Point Break

By  · Published on January 29th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema: now with zero Trans fat! It may not add inches to your waistline, but recent research indicates that reading this column can cause a layer of processed cheddar to coat your cerebrum. It’s true; it was in the New England Journal of Stuff I Just Made Up! Every week I bring you the films we all love even if we are covert in our fandom. I have noticed that the readership of FSR tends to have a more advanced palate for film appreciation. So clearly, we are all aware that these films are subpar. But like the various, horrendously unhealthy snack foods with which I pair each film, sometimes you just have to treat yourself to a little bit of cinema decadence despite the being cognizant of the fact that it is bad for you. To wit, I offer a film that, were it an unhealthy meal, would equate to a 7 pound Philly Cheese Steak that would be free of charge should you consume all of it. Ladies and Gents, the immortal Point Break.

Point Break is the story of Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) an FBI rookie who joins the armed robbery division of the LA branch. He gets paired up with a loose cannon agent named Pappas; played by the hopelessly insane Gary Busey. The robbery division is in total chaos when Utah joins because a group of robbers called the ex-presidents, so named for the masks of former leaders they sport during robberies, has hit over 27 banks in 3 years. During an investigation of their most recent heist, Utah discovers a residue in the getaway car that turns out to be a compound used to wax surfboards. He gets the idea, now bear with me here, that if the ex-presidents are surfers, it would benefit the investigation for him to go undercover as a surfer to discover their identities. He meets a righteous dude named Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) who takes him under his wing and teaches him the mystical power of the wave. And…we have got ourselves a film folks!

I find a major fault with Point Break in that it perpetuates an ugly stereotype: that all surfers are bank robbers. For years, the good, honest surfers of America have had to deal with this ignorant prejudice; many of them no longer allowed to set foot into the larger savings-and-loan institutions. When will we learn, as a society, that not everyone who shreds waves also takes part in elaborate heists? I have many friends who are surfers and not one of them, well only two of them, have ever engaged in armed robbery. It’s films like Point Break that keep America divided down the hobby line. Be that as it may, it is a perfect candidate for Junkfood Cinema so I suppose I can set aside my social scruples and discuss this radically awesome film.

What Makes It Bad?

This film smells like string cheese and beef jerky. Not many movies have an identifiable scent, but the amount of testosterone and over-the-top cheese in this film cannot be confined to merely two senses. There is so much machismo in this film that it’ll rip the sleeves from your shirt and give you one of those chins that look like a tiny donut taped to your face. But the thing is, for all its posturing, Point Break doesn’t really understand what it means to be a tough guy. What do I mean? Let’s analyze the scene wherein the FBI is about to raid the home of the surfers believed to be the ex-presidents.

Keep in mind, it has been established that these are real “bad dudes,” possibly the baddest in town. But the way in which the film communicates the macho/tough status of these guys sails way past intimidating and lands somewhere closer to Goofy Town. They show a guy lying on a bed listening to a walkman and basically seizing to the music; truly awkward but not tough. Or how about the guy who is certified badass by his choice of breakfast foods? As the agent peers through the window, he observes one of the thugs sitting down to a nice bowl of cereal who, in lieu of milk, pours an entire can of beer over the top. So let me see if I understand the Point Break exemplars for manliness: you have to be an idiot who can’t control his extremities when listening to heavy metal and eat things that would make a goat puke? Message received movie, I’m off to buy a box of Fruit Loops, a six pack of Schlitz, and a Megadeath album.

The real anchor of crap in Point Break is its cast. Well, more specifically Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey constitute the problem, but there is a major issue apparent when you can’t take 66.66% of your leads seriously. And when I say you can’t take them seriously, I’m not just referring to their characters or motivations. No, I mean it’s hard to take these two seriously as human beings! Reeves always seems puzzled by the various challenges that arise in the course of his duties; challenges like walking into rooms while delivering dialogue, eating a donut, and framing two sentences consecutively. I still don’t understand how he ever had a career because I’m not convinced he isn’t a were-sponge who returns to his true absorbent, porous form once a movie is wrapped.

Busey is a great big ball of crazy. He is so aggressive with everyone all the time that the slightest ancillary line sounds like its coming from a man on the edge of a cerebral hemorrhage. These two have chemistry the way household cleaners mix well together to create crystal meth.

The premise of Point Break is delightfully preposterous. As it progresses, you realize that the fact that an FBI agent would ever waste his time going “undercover” as a surfer is absurd, but it’s not the hardest element to swallow. That is the truly mind-blowing accomplishment of Point Break is that eventually you start judging the other plot points for plausibility based on the absurd world they’ve established, and they still don’t make sense! The hokey philosophy of surfing as a transcendental experience gets to be a little much by about the third sermon from Swayze. The fact that anyone would find Lori Petty attractive with that 9-year-old-boy haircut is perplexing, as is the fact that Reeves didn’t catch on much sooner as to who the ex-Presidents really were; even for him that should have been obvious.

Why I love It!

I’ll say it again: the premise of Point Break is delightfully preposterous. No, that’s not a typo. One of the very things that makes the film so bad is exactly why it works for me. If you tried to put Keanu and Busey into a serious drama with a cohesive, grounded script, that movie would tank harder than a sequel to The Spirit. There is a reverence for this film among movie geeks precisely because of how over-the-top the concept is. It’s about surfers who rob banks in masks of former presidents! There are scenes of extreme sports, great fistfights, and the robbery scenes are surprisingly well-done. The federal agent element with the raids and the shootouts is hilarious at its worst and entertaining at its best.

Kathryn Bigelow, who directed this film, is no slouch. She not only also directed Near Dark, one of my favorite vampire films of all time, but her most recent film is up for a boatload of awards (The Hurt Locker). Not that I’m comparing The Hurt Locker to Point Break in terms of quality, but Bigelow seems aware of the stinker she was given and, instead of trying to force substance into a sausagefest, she dives head-first into the cheese and makes an incredibly fun film. There are moments where you can tell she could have tried to restrain the more off-the-wall performances, but chose to be more embracing of the overall aesthetic.

Also, Point Break has Patrick Swayze. The man can do no wrong in my book. No, as sad as it was, I am not just saying this because he is no longer among the living. All you have to do is watch Red Dawn or ten minutes of Road House to know that Swayze never did anything half-assed. That is exactly the quality that endears exploitation legends to cult film fans. Every actor worth his b-movie salt knows that no matter what the role, no matter how bad the movie, you give it your all and play it to the bone. Do I sound like a college football coach to anyone else? Swayze may be spouting nonsense about the Zen nature of surfing, but he is doing it so sincerely that it’s impossible not to love him. The most believable part of the film for me is when Reeves can’t bring himself to shoot Swayze and fires the gun in the air in that oft-parodied moment of bromance.

Junkfood Pairing: Beereal

Don’t tell me it’s not a real thing, you’re not my real dad! Inspired by the antics of the less-than-badass thug in the film, I am actually going to attempt to eat a bowl of cereal with beer instead of milk. I can’t legally suggest you do the same, but I’m going to suggest you do the same. It will most likely taste like fruity, sugary sheet metal but if I don’t try it, how will I ever convince anyone that I am a bad man who is young, dumb, and full of…cereal?

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.