Veteran filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow has spent the better part of the last decade making films set in combat zones, but as good as Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker might have been, great war movies are a dime a dozen. Great surf movies, on the other hand, only come once in a 50-year storm, and 25 years ago today, Bigelow released the best surf movie of all time: her fourth feature film, Point Break.
Point Break follows young, dumb, and full of cum FBI agent Johnny Utah on his rookie mission to infiltrate a group of bank-robbing surfers. Johnny finds himself in over his head as he is first drawn to the lone woman of the surf crew, and then to the group’s leader, the bleached blond spiritual guru and master of the waves, Bodhi.
Point Break was a minor hit in the states when it was released in 1991, and a major international hit for a film of its size. The film’s success briefly made it possible for Bigelow to make films like Strange Days with substantial budgets. But its reception would mark the start of criticisms that would plague Bigelow well into the rest of her career — despite a rave review from Janet Maslin at the New York Times, the men of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and the Chicago Reader agreed that Bigelow’s stylishness uncritically fetishized masculinity to the detriment of real thinking. As then Entertainment Weekly critic, now Variety plastic surgery expert Owen Gleiberman put it, "Bigelow clearly revels in the spectacle of jock bravado. The movie, though, treats its cult of bad-boy supersurfers with such crazed Olympian reverence that it verges on shutting the audience out."
Over the years, Bigelow has had a complicated public relationship with feminism and gender roles that exists somewhat at odds with her calm behind the camera. She pointedly resists feminist interpretations of her films and has turned down seats at conferences for women filmmakers, but she is also outspoken on the issues of gender inequality in Hollywood’s hiring practices, and in her own right and ability to make films about the subjects of her choosing, whether they are masculine, political, genre-focused, or violent.
Is the bond that Bodhi and Johnny share in Point Break a masculine one? Is the gaze of the camera a feminine one? If you insist; but there’s a flatness between those supposed polarities in Point Break. The boys have long hair, the girls have short hair. Johnny falls in love with a woman named Tyler, she teaches him to surf, and when they lie in bed together they look like twins. Bigelow cast Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, and Lori Petty in the lead roles as Johnny, Bodhi, and Tyler — all three a mash of hard bodies and soft feelings. For as much as Point Break was chastened in its initial release for its celebration of machismo and praised in the present for its subversion of the same, macho is in the eye of the beholder.
Instead of conforming to a gender binary, the characters in Point Break represent a spectrum of both nature and human structures. On one end, there’s Bodhi, at one with earth, air, fire, and water, and on the other end there’s the FBI, married to paperwork, procedure, and hierarchy. Johnny enters the film as the true middle, and the film’s story follows him as he is pulled between the two worlds.
Bigelow signals her own allegiances in her filmmaking. Her direction is restless at the FBI headquarters. Her camera strains for movement as characters point at computers, cuts anxiously through conversations, and encourages overemphasis from Reeves and his costars Gary Busey and John C. McGinley the second they enter the closed world of the FBI. Though the film features some of Bigelow’s most kinetic filmmaking — the chase through the backyards required Bigelow’s cameraman to strap the camera to his body and chase the actors at a full sprint — speed in Point Break is aligned with a lack of balance. Bodhi’s robberies pass at a breakneck pace, and everything from the president masks to the time limit suggests the excess in Bodhi’s behavior that will eventually lead to his downfall.
Instead, the heart of Point Break is in the moments it finds stasis. This is a feeling missed by the 2015 remake, which is more like an adaptation of Bigelow’s reputation than her actual filmmaking style. In the original film, Lori Petty’s Tyler dismisses big-wave surfing as macho bullshit — in the 2015 film, there are nothing but big waves, and tomboyish Tyler is renamed Samsara and played by a leggy femme white girl. But unlike the big-wave money shots that make up the surf scenes in the reboot, in the original Point Break the water is where everything becomes smooth, even slow. In the film’s climactic skydiving sequences, Bigelow makes a spectacle not out of the plummet to the earth, but to the illusion of stability that comes when you hand control of your body over to the air. And of course, in the end, Johnny sides with Bigelow too — he lets Bodhi perish at sea along with his bureaucratic ambitions.
Feminism isn’t exactly aiming to literally imprison people the way Johnny’s bosses at the FBI aim to imprison people, but in an interview with Newsweek at the peak of her Hurt Locker comeback tour, Bigelow refused badges all the same, saying, "I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what my aptitude is, and I really think it’s to explore and push the medium. It’s not about breaking gender roles or genre traditions."
Point Break anticipates Bigelow’s statement by a couple decades. If we’re all meant to drift among the elements, why waste time performing roles that don’t have to exist?