Hollywood is really good at cranking out genre movies that splice together reliable story elements so cynically, we kind of hate ourselves for watching them. But sometimes, the right combination of director, actors and crew elevate even the most trite premise to something more, simply through the power of great execution. Such is the case with Point Break, a high-octane action movie with a premise so gimmicky that the whole thing should have faded into obscurity. But instead, it has become a cult classic that helped define 90s action cinema and still has a loyal following some 20 years later. And you know what? This movie totally earns it.
Los Angeles has a problem: a gang of four bank robbers called the Ex-Presidents—because they each wear a rubber mask of a former U.S. President—have hit dozens of banks with uncommon skill, discipline, and annoyingly for the law, an inability to get caught. The FBI thinks the robbers might be local surfers, so rookie agent Johnnie Utah is tasked with infiltrating the surfing scene in the hopes of proving the theory. Utah, who is even more green as a surfer than he is as a lawman, manages to connect with a group of surfers led by the charismatic Bodhi, who accepts Utah because of his former career as a star college football player. Over time, Utah gets deeper and deeper into Bodhi’s adrenaline-driven lifestyle, forming a romantic relationship with the tomboy of the group, Tyler. But Utah is still supposed to be a cop, and the more he works his case, the more it becomes obvious that he is literally sleeping with the enemy. As Utah and Bodhi’s friendship deepens, as does Utah’s romance with Tyler, the question becomes unavoidable: when the time comes to put the Ex-Presidents away, will Utah be able to do it? Or has he paddled too far from shore to remember why he carried a badge in the first place?
On paper, Point Break really is nothing special. Surfer bank robbers are too good to be caught, so a raw recruit is sent undercover, inevitably goes native, and must take down his best friend. What makes it special, however, are the all-in performances by Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze and Lori Petty, who essentially became their characters to shoot the movie, creating a weird kind of experience beyond the fourth wall. But Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is the real star here. Her pacing turns what would have been a rote undercover police procedural into a tight, thrilling story about how the conflict between law and chaos is more about a clash of philosophy than it is about morality. Shot as a love letter to the kind of loopy, thrillseeking subculture Bodhi and his crew inhabit, by the time Point Break is over, we find ourselves wondering why exactly we are living quiet, normal lives instead of tempting fate through wingsuit flying, BASE jumping, parkour or some other activity that adjusts average life expectancy rates downward.
What keeps things interesting in this is that even though Utah is our hero, we never really believe that he’s got what it takes to stop Bodhi. He’s a good cop, but in all things, he’s simply chasing Bodhi’s wake, and everybody knows it. Maybe that’s what fuels Utah’s conflicted loyalties; even if he does try to bring down the Ex-Presidents, is he really a better cop than Bodhi is a robber? That kind of doubt gnaws on you. An early raid on the wrong gang of criminal surfers is uncommonly intense, largely because it showcases how close Utah comes to getting a faceful of lawn mower, rather than Utah’s skill as a badass. Later on, an iconic foot chase sequence between Utah and Reagan, the leader of the ex-Presidents, ends when Utah’s old football injury hobbles him, and Utah can’t bring himself to shoot at a guy he knows is his friend. When he empties his magazine into the sky, we feel his frustration. He’s a guy defined by his limits, chasing people who don’t have any. Of course, what should have been the end of the movie results in Utah losing Bodhi, blowing his cover, and wallowing in a rain ditch.
And that’s when the movie turns. Utah might have been sent on a “it takes a thief to catch a thief” kind of mission, but it’s way more complicated than that. Utah can’t just pretend to be surfer, he’s got to become one to understand how far outside of his zone he’s got to go if he wants to get the job done. And we see it at the climax, once Bodhi and Utah had dropped all pretense of friendship, Utah has been forced to accompany the ex-Presidents on one last bank robbery, and it all ends with Bodhi skydiving away to in the perfect getaway, leaving Utah behind, stranded on the plane without a chute. Utah’s answer is to jump after Bodhi without one, in what has to be one of the most gutsy movies by any hero in any action movie ever. That it comes from a second fiddle like Utah is why it works, because he has no idea if it will. He just knows that’s what it’ll take. And so out the plane he goes. Turns out, it really does take a Bodhi to catch a Bodhi.
The moment of truth isn’t Utah’s skydive chase, though. It’s during the epilogue, when Utah has seemingly sacrificed everything to chase Bodhi around the world, long after everybody else has given up. By the time Utah corners Bodhi between a strip of beach and waves too lethal to surf. Utah knows he’s failed as a cop. But when he makes Bodhi beg to let him go, he’s proven to himself that he’s become the kind of guy Bodhi wishes everyone would be: willing to go the distance.