The first time Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves, charismatically monotone), a Los Angeles cop trying to infiltrate the insular local surfing world in order to unmask a gang of mask-wearing bank robbers who also like to hang ten, meets Bodhi (Patrick Swayze, serenly feisty), it is because the former has run afoul of a gang and the latter swoops in to save him. It really is a damsel in distress situation, just with two guys, male bonding at its most primal, as they quickly unite to make quick work of these sub thugs. Afterwards, Bodhi turns philosophical: “They just want to get radical. It’s mindless aggression. They'll never get it, the spiritual side of it.” I love those lines so much. I’ve used them myself when discussing bros at college football bars in the autumn. And when I saw Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break” for the first time as a feeble-minded teen, I marveled over the action sequences, so thrillingly composed, but not much else. I was a kid! I just wanted to get radical. It was mindless aggression. It was awhile before I got the spiritual side of it.
“Point Break” is that rare movie that can appeal as much to the adrenaline junkie just looking to pig out on action movie endorphins as much as it can to the more thoughtful watcher who yearns for subtext. The latter is there for you, truly, if you want to go digging, and some have dug a little, and some have dug a lot. The movie, after all, is nothing if not a portrayal of “ideological contradictions” between the inane bureaucracy of Johnny’s world and the natural righteousness of Bodhi’s world, blue pill or red pill. That, however, has become of less interest to me over the years then Bodhi’s role as the “Bodhisattva”, suggesting that he has postponed nirvana to ensure Johnny’s own awakening. In this light, all the surfing, skydiving and bank robbing sequences become checkpoints on a journey to rebirth, and Bodhi’s conclusion is him finally allowing himself to be liberated.
That conclusion involves the colossal waves of Bells Beach Australia, established in an earlier sequence as the effect of a brewing 50 Year Storm, an event another character dismisses as “kind of a legend.” “No, it’s real,” says Bodhi. “It’s absolutely real.” Swayze invests these lines with a zaniness so earnest that it transcends a scene that is otherwise all about “testosterone”, not an easy feat, but then this is something of the quintessential Swayze role. “Swayze’s purity of purpose,” wrote Dana Stevens of it in her Swayze obituary, “has a deranged grandeur.” And so does the majestic final scene, when Johnny finds Bodhi at Bells and, sure enough, the Fifty Year Storm, its historic surf and the Bodhisattva finally allowing himself to merge with that incommunicable plain atop one towering wave.
Trivia masters like to point out that the Bells Beach showdown with the swells was not actually shot at Bells Beach because the production could not afford it. And so freaking what? Plausibility was never meant to be the defining quality of “Point Break.” If you want to achieve a true state of bliss at the movies, dude, you can’t go around whining about plausibility and “geographical accuracy” and “surfing bank robbers” and “Keanu’s Spicoli-ness” and how “the screenplay’s gaps in logic offset Bigelow’s supreme aesthetic.” Nah, man, that sort of thinking kills the moviegoing spirit, which is the ultimate teaching of “Point Break”.....once, that is, you are ready to accept it.
When you do, you’ll know: “It’s real. It’s absolutely real.”