Point Break: Redux


I had very little memory of the film when I switched it on to pass a recent Saturday evening, and was concerned that watching an ‘old’ film from my teenaged years had become a recreational activity worthy of my time.

Originally, I saw it way back in 1991 with some friends. There was something about making our own way to the cinema and watching it without the presence of adults. I barely remembered the film; more than that, I remember the feeling it gave me, and there was something it triggered, similar to The Karate Kid, when I was much younger. We didn’t know it at the time, but as adolescents, we were looking for a way of striking out on our own, finding purpose, starting a quest.

It was the film’s preoccupation with a secret mystical life, or engaging in a physical discipline as the gateway to the experience of a life which transcended the everyday. For Daniel San, it was something he practiced, and was inducted into by his sensei, Mr Miyagi.

For the surfers in Point Break, it is the supposedly idealistic Bodhi (short for bodhisattva – an enlightened being), who guides them on their quest to the place where you ‘lose yourself and find yourself’, the point break, or ignition point, of transcendent experience.

The film opens with footage of the film’s principal characters engaged in action: Johnny Utah, played by Keanu Reeves, is negotiating the FBI shooting range, while Bodhi cuts across the face of an incipient breaker at dawn. The film’s titles, the words ‘Point Break’, run across the screen from opposite directions, passing through one another until the title fills the screen.

You know you’re watching an action film; the title sequence presages the collision between the warrior and the mystic.

The film is built on a fantastic premise. A young, hot-shot FBI graduate is tasked with investigating a string of bank robberies executed by a gang known as the ex-presidents; a gang of four thieves who have remained successful because they are methodical, professional and never get greedy.

The idea of a group of surfers financing the pursuit of an endless summer by robbing banks, essentially a victimless crime if conducted safely because insurance companies are footing the bill, is a daring concept that an audience can, in good conscience, easily get on board with.

In order to develop a cover, Johnny Utah first needs to learn to surf. He stalks a woman, Taylor, who reprimands him for his lack of etiquette at the break, and fashions a pretty significant lie as the basis for developing a relationship with her.

That relationship is initially a mentorship, as she teaches him to surf. This is, at least, a significant departure from films of this ilk, populated by an overwhelmingly male cast. You’ve got a significant female character who is also engaged in a discipline which is viewed as the domain of men. She actively provides an alternative perspective on surfing and what it means as a spiritual, not just recreational, activity.  

There is a lovely piece of misdirection at work in the film’s early acts, when Johnny thinks the gang he has been tracking are the ex-presidents, when in actual fact, the presidents are the gang he has inadvertently joined.

The debunking of this hypothesis introduces the audience to a character who becomes a fulcrum point in the story. It turns out that the gang who Utah has mistakenly taken for the presidents are, in fact, dealing drugs and being pursued by an undercover cop whose months of deep cover dissolve in a hail of FBI bullets.

He charges into the kitchen with a bag of drugs and demands to know, from Utah and his senior partner, if they think he likes wearing surfer clothes, likes not cutting his hair, and enjoys the fact his wife doesn’t want him sleeping at home because he stinks. The truth is, Utah likes it. He’s close to joining the opposition team, because he understands them.  

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