This is a love letter.
You might see this essay as a cheap ploy to make fun of the cult classic film Point Break, and I couldn’t fault you for thinking that right away. However, you’d be utterly wrong. Every beauty or flaw I document in the following paragraphs is out of a deep adoration for what can only be described as one of Hollywood’s best unintended comedies, which turns 30 this year.
A quick recap for those of you who haven’t had your annual viewing of Point Break yet: Keanu Reeves stars as Johnny Utah, the ex-football star turned rookie FBI agent. He’s moved to the bureau’s L.A. office, where he’s partnered with FBI veteran Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey, Buseying all over the place). Johnny goes undercover as a surfer in order to bust a ring of bank robbers, and in the process bonds with surfing guru and near cult leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze).
But how do accidental comedy masterpieces happen? The recipe is never quite the same. For The Room, it was simply Tommy Wiseau, plus a suspicious amount of disposable income, and that combination was remarkable enough to merit its own film, The Disaster Artist. In the case of Cats, it was a shit ton of money, Tom Hooper and a complete misunderstanding of what makes that musical work.
Three ingredients were needed to place Point Break in this enviable hall of fame: complete self-seriousness, a quotable script, and whole host of unforgettable performances.
Heads up: if you haven’t watched the movie yet, go do so now and treat yourself to a nice beverage while you’re at it. Beyond this point is spoiler territory.
Whatever way you want to cut it, this is a well-made film—at least as far as the cinematography goes. Long shots savor sun-kissed waters, as lens flares flash over Lori Petty (playing Johnny Utah’s surf instructor and love interest Tyler) riding a wave. There’s an entire video on YouTube in which Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow breaks down the methods she uses to keep shots dynamic. The short answer: lots and lots of handheld cameras. This meant that the cameramen were literally running alongside Reeves and Swayze during that lengthy chase scene. While this may not seem like that big of a deal, especially after the Bourne series make jerky handheld shots nearly unwatchable, it was pretty damn impressive at the time.
How does this make the movie funny, though? Well, I’ll tell ya—because they cared. The producers took this project seriously. They wanted to make it look good. This wasn’t a write-off, but an opportunity for Bigelow to show off her chops as a filmmaker and for hunks like Reeves and Swayze to be action stars. And hell, she executed it very well. But the gorgeous backdrops and skilled tracking shots make every misstep (or, rather, unintentional stroke of genius) documented in the sections below land all the better. There’s a certain joy to be found in a scrappy, cheesy movie clearly holding the set together with tape, but there’s also always a bit of me rooting for the underdog there. When real Hollywood money is put up for an action flick that ends up making us laugh for all the wrong reasons, you have to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Point Break was penned by W. Peter Iliff, whose short list of writing credits includes the likes of Patriot Games, based on a Tom Clancy novel, and Varsity Blues, a special kind of bad movie that deserves an essay of its own. Bigelow and her then husband James Cameron had to rewrite the screenplay, though they did not receive writing credits, according to the AFI Catalog. Considering that Bigelow’s last writing credit was from 1996 and Cameron’s latest is just a list of Avatar spawn, we’re not exactly dealing with Shakespeare here.
While the plot leaves something to be desired in the stakes department (We’re supposed to care about bank robberies? In this economy?), no one is going hungry when it comes to cliche-ridden quotes. Here are just a few highlights:
1. John C. McGinley, as a hard-ass FBI director, upon meeting Johnny Utah: “Young, dumb and full of cum.”
2. Angelo on the bank robbers known as the Ex-Presidents: “They vanish. Like a virgin on prom night.”
3. Angelo again (honestly most of this list is him) on his long tenure at the FBI: “Man, L.A. has changed a lot during that time. The air got dirty and the sex got
4. Angelo after cutting off a lock of a surfer’s hair: “I’m making a wig for my girlfriend.”
5. Bodhi, with the sincerity of a nun: “Back off, Warchild, seriously.”
6. Angelo, pushing past a half-naked lady: “FBI, gorgeous.”
7. Angelo on a two meatball sandwich kind of day: “Utah! Get me two!”
8. Bodhi to Johnny, in a totally-not-homoerotic moment: “You want me so bad it’s like acid in your mouth.”
9. Johnny saying goodbye to Bodhi as he paddles off into the 50-year storm: “Vaya con Dios.”
Everyone in this film seems to subscribe to the “more is more” approach to acting, whether it’s McGinley popping forehead veins as he yells at Reeves, or Busey laughing maniacally at a comic strip. From the stars themselves to the extras at Bodhi’s beach party, they’re all turning it up to 11.
Even the smallest of parts offer sustenance. Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame appears as one of the goons from a rival surf gang, sporting some very radical hair. Bodhi’s circle of surfer dudes are a constant source of delight, particularly the blond bonehead Grommet (played by Bojesse Christopher, a low-rent Mark-Paul Gosselar). Petty is actually pretty damn good in Point Break, but even she has her moments—most memorably, when she wails and shoots the pillow next to Johnny upon discovering he’s actually an FBI agent.
So let’s get to the big three: Busey, Swayze and Reeves.
Busey is a live wire throughout the film, yelling at times where it doesn’t really make sense and shuffling about with a stogie dangling out of his mouth. His character gets some of the best lines, made all the better when delivered with Buseyan intensity. Reeves’ occasionally quiet demeanor is always boosted by Busey’s grumblings and wide-eyed stare.
Swayze seems to have drunk his own Flavor Aid as Bodhi, his glorious mullet glowing like a halo in the California sun and his eyes always agleam with something—the spirit of surfing? The freedom of the ocean? Who knows. Swayze also committed on the athletic front, learning surfing for Point Break and performing all of his own skydiving stunts.
And finally, Reeves. He’s in his peak himbo years here, literally appearing in a wet t-shirt when we first meet Johnny Utah. His distinctive voice already makes him sound like a stoner, and when he really leans into his surfing alter-ego it’s a thing of beauty. Reeves is at his best when he’s shouting, and he gets to do a hell of a lot of that in Point Break. We’re so lucky to be living during the Reeves-aissance, but it’s always a joy to revisit him here.
In 30 years, nothing has quite reached the camp wonder of Point Break—certainly not the remake from 2015. Action films of today may boast impressive CGI or star-studded casts, but none of them have the earnest appeal of Keanu Reeves jumping out of an airplane with nothing but a gun. As Bodhi has taught us, “If you want the ultimate, you’ve got to be willing to pay the ultimate price.” I’m not sure how exactly that applies to watching Point Break, but it’s a sweet quote to end on.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.