In September 2009, the world lost actor Patrick Swayze to cancer. Both an action star and a dancer, Swayze was able to play both romantic leads and tough guys—a feat very few have been able to pull off. Oozing with charisma, Swayze stared in some of the biggest films of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Maybe you first saw him in Ghost starring opposite Demi Moore playing a young lover murdered in cold blood. Or perhaps you know him best as Frances Houseman from the 1987 dance flick Dirty Dancing. Maybe you best remember him as Jed Eckert in the Cold War action-thriller Red Dawn. It was difficult to put Patrick Swayze into just one category, which was probably why he became such a big star and meant a lot to so many people. I grew up watching Swayze’s movies but it wasn’t until I revisited his films after he died that I realized what an immense talent he was. Over the next few posts, I’ll examine a few of the best and/or more interesting members of the cinematic Swayze-verse. Today, I’m going to talk about 1991’s Point Break.
Warning, spoilers ahead.
One of the things that surprises me every time I watch Point Break is just how little screen time Patrick Swayze has in the film. Despite being a star vehicle for Keanu Reeves, by the time the credits roll Swayze’s electric performance has stolen the movie. On paper, Point Break has an incredibly stupid plot: a rookie FBI agent takes down a mysterious gang of surfing bank robbers by learning to surf and infiltrating their inner circle. High art this is not.
The script is thin and the testosterone is thick—but two things save Point Break from being a dunderheaded mess: Patrick Swayze and Kathryn Bigelow. Kathryn Bigelow’s skilled directorial hand keeps the high-octane thrills from being overwhelming or confusing for the audience by keeping the camera steady and close to the action. Current directors should seriously take a page out of Bigelow’s book. At no point in the run time of Point Break is the audience confused about who is doing what…where. Geography and a clear view of what is happening is crucial to building suspense and tension. Here Bigelow shines, crafting a film full of tense but coherent action scenes.
The film’s script ingeniously features surfing, skydiving, and frantic car chases thus ensuring the action never become tedious. That a woman directed this bro-tastic action fest might seem a bit shocking, after all Point Break is extremely macho. But I’m glad that Bigelow directed Point Break because her skill elevates the rather ho-um material. Besides doing a fantastic job on all of the action scenes, there are a number of beautifully framed shots that make Point Break stand apart from many action-adventure films from the same era. In particular, there is a wonderful shot of Keanu Reeves and Lori Petty bobbing up and down in the ocean that wows me each and every time I watch the film. I also really enjoy the scene in the very beginning where Reeves and his new boss, played by John C. McGinley, walk through a busy FBI office. The camera slithers along as it tracks the two men’s path through the room in one long take. There are also a number of great little artistic touches throughout the film, like having the film open and close with a scene in the rain, that shows the mark of careful craftsmanship behind the camera.
Of course, all the fantastic direction in the world couldn’t save Point Break if the character of Bodhi wasn’t played just right. To say that Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi is the villain of the movie would be a mistake. On paper he certainly is the bad guy—he’s the leader of the “Ex-Presidents,” the mysterious gang of bank robbers who wear rubber masks of former Presidents. The gang is untouchable with over 30 successful robberies under their belt. As the film progresses and Bodhi’s plans begin to unravel, Bodhi kidnaps a woman, shoots a police officer, and come to blows several times with Keanu Reeves’ Agent Utah, but at no point in the film do I think of Bodhi as “a bad guy.” Despite the bullets and the betrayal, Bodhi maintains a Robin Hood-like status for much of the film. Thanks to Swayze’s performance the audience feels just as conflicted as Reeves’ Agent Utah when it comes to the two men’s conflict. Though it’s been parodied many times, it still feels cathartic when Reeves unloads his gun into the air, screaming with frustration at his inability to shoot Bodhi after a long foot chase. We want the cop to catch the criminal but as soon as he corners Bodhi we don’t him to get shot. But why do we care if the “bad guy” gets shot? Patrick Swayze is why we care.
We first meet Swayze’s character nearly 25 minutes into the movie (I don’t count the bank robbery at the beginning because we don’t see his face). He runs up behind Lori Petty’s surfer-chick character on the beach and grabs her from behind. An annoyed Keanu Reeves looks on as Swayze hoists her off her feet and charms the shit out of everyone with his friendly, open nature. In fact, if you didn’t know what Point Break was about, you might completely mistake Swayze for a good-guy surfer who might wind up helping Reeves taken out the evil bank robbers. During the first half-hour of the movie everyone gives Keanu Reeves’ character shit. His new boss calls him out for being inexperienced and young. His new partner (played by the lovably bat-shit crazy Gary Busey) doesn’t want anything to do with him. Even the hot surfer chick Reeves enlists to help him learn to surf only agrees to help him after he manipulates her with a lie about dead parents. The only person who meets Johnny Utah and doesn’t dismiss him or call him a pussy (or whatever) is Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi. Bodhi makes a playful joke about Utah having a big surfboard, but then invites him to play a game of touch football on the beach. Utah, a former college quarterback of minor fame, gets too into the game and sacks Bodhi in the surf. When the members of Bodhi’s gang object, Bodhi cools everyone out and explains that he not only doesn’t mind—he knows who Johnny Utah is and respects him! Swayze plays Bodhi less like a typical beach burnout and more like a zen master. He’s a combination of Jedi Master Yoda, the Dude from The Big Lebowski, and the aforementioned Robin Hood.
When taking Johnny Utah out for a moonlight surf, Utah complains that he can barely surf in broad daylight and is hesitant about surfing at night when he won’t be able to see. Bodhi simply replies, “You don’t need to see.” This mystical bullshit falls flat on the page, but coming from Swayze with his tanned skin and huge, bleached lion mane, this hippy-dippy stuff works. And for a huge chunk of the Point Break that’s what Swayze does, he sells us a character that’s a daring thrill seeker and who says encouraging stuff to the film’s in-over-his-head protagonist. Then Swayze does what only Swayze could do: he keeps us invested in Bodhi after the character goes into full-on “bad-guy” mode. This occurs in the latter third of the movie when the jig is up–Utah is found out and the bodies start piling up. We see Swayze use the same gentle words of encouragement/support to manipulate Utah into helping him rob a bank. The communal thrills are turned into not-so-subtle threats when he essentially forces Utah to try skydiving.
That first skydiving scene is fantastic: we know (and Johnny Utah suspects) that Bodhi knows Utah is a cop, so is he going to kill Utah with this jump? Is the parachute offered to Utah, and then swapped about the airplane cabin endlessly, a dud or not? The whole time Swayze exudes a deeply unsettling friendly malice. Swayze’s character, a gun-toting robber who confesses to hate violence, has grief painted across his face as Bodhi’s plans spin out of control and he’s forced to commit multiple violent acts. It’s an interesting duality that Swayze achieves through his natural charisma and ability to realistically twist his face with anguish. The line at the beginning of the film about hating violence would be just that—merely a line if Swayze didn’t remind us many times over with the pained look he has every time he kills or maims someone.
The action makes Point Break good, but its Patrick Swayze’s complex antagonist that makes the film great. Swayze’s thrill-seeking bank robber, who’s real crime is an overwhelming desire to shake free from the shackles of mediocrity at any cost, is probably the most likable bad-guy in movie history. We the audience don’t necessarily want all of his plans to succeed, but we do want him to be able to catch that final wave at the end of the film. The ending, in which Agent Utah catches Bodhi but then lets him go so he can die heroically, riding a killer Australian super-wave, is a bit unbelievable. After all, Bodhi puts Agent Utah through the ringer and then some, the notion that he would let Bodhi escape justice and die on his own terms is a bit puzzling. And yet, despite being totally fantastical this ending is incredibly satisfying because it allows Bodhi to escape jail but not punishment for his crimes. He dies with dignity doing what he loves—and Utah is absolved from having to cage or kill his bro. This implausible “movie ending” is really the only way Point Break could have ended that would have been satisfying for the audience.
The triumph of Swayze’s performance is the nuance and likability he injects into a character we should despise. Had the character of Bodhi not been so likable, Point Break wouldn’t have worked. Period. Over twenty years after it first hit theaters, Point Break still holds up today thanks largely to the dynamic between it’s two main characters on opposite sides of the law. If you haven’t seen Point Break or if you haven’t seen it lately I urge you watch it. You won’t regret riding this action-packed wave.