Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) has just joined the F.B.I. in Los Angeles, but on his first day he doesn't receive a warm welcome from his new boss, Agent Harp (John C. McGinley). Harp thinks he is the usual dumb new recruit who believes he knows the ropes but whose lack of experience will let him down, although Johnny pricks his pomposity by showing himself to be very knowledgeable. He is being placed on a team that beats the bank robbers, and they've been very successful, but there's one gang calling themselves the Ex-Presidents, wearing disguises of suits and rubber masks of former U.S. presidents, who have eluded capture for the past three years. Johnny gets his new partner, old hand Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), and when news comes in of the gang's latest crime, they head over to the scene immediately...
Hollywood has had a love affair with surfing culture for decades, probably ever since Gidget took to the waves, but the admiration often hasn't been a two way thing. Those Beach Party movies did a lot of damage, after all, but Point Break arrived determined to glamourise this way of life by presenting it as a spiritual vocation. Or at least it does for the first half, as this film is very much split down the middle at the sixty minute mark. For the first hour, Johnny immerses himself in surfing because he has to go undercover in the world of the sport. Why? The Ex-Presidents are, according to his forensic analysis, surfer dudes.
Naturally, Johnny doesn't fit in right away, and at the start of his attempts has to be pulled from the water after nearly drowning by the more expert Tyler (Lori Petty), who makes no bones about admonishing him for his amateur skills, and suggests that he gives it up. However, he wins her around by spinning a tale about wishing to take up the life as he needs a radical change of scenery, and she ends up teaching him all he needs to know. On the other hand, this is assuredly not a girls' film, and Petty is pretty much there to fulfill the love interest angle as she is the ex-girlfriend of one Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), who everyone on the beaches looks up to.
After saving Johnny from being beaten up by rougher, less spiritual surfers, Bodhi and he become pals, and Johnny joins his group. The agent thinks he knows who the gang are, and even though it's obvious from the start that it's Bodhi who's the anti-heroic villain Johnny goes after some other punks instead. Once he realises that it's Bodhi who's behind the robberies, the story moves into its second act, and all that surfing business is forgotten about until the end. Busey, who as Big Wednesday proved knows his way around a surfboard, doesn't get to catch any waves, but provides excellent back up, yet it's the bond between Johnny and Bodhi that the film is concerned with.
That, and the action sequences. Director Kathryn Bigelow, working from W. Peter Iliff's script (Rick King co-wrote the story), displayed her talent for getting the adrenaline pumping, both onscreen and in the audience, with some fine setpieces. Possibly the most famous scene doesn't involve the sea, but is the chase on foot with Johnny charging through houses and gardens after the masked Bodhi (who even throws a dog at him!), a good example of the over the top but taking it utterly seriously nature of the film. Always threatening to lapse into self-parody, Point Break doesn't ever quite turn into the joke that it might have done, all this despite two skydiving sequences, one of which has Johnny leaping out of the plane without a parachute, such is his determination to catch his man. The soulful side is shown to be ambiguous, as Bodhi's flaws take him over, and yet Johnny learns from him while retaining his integrity. Is it deep? It tries to be, but can just as easily be appreciated as a not-quite-typical 1990s action movie - perhaps it's better that way. Music by Mark Isham.
After a starting her career as an artist, this American director and writer moved into the world of film, making her first feature The Loveless in 1982. Five years later came the film which made her name, the modern vampire tale Near Dark, and she followed it up with equally cult-ish thrillers Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days. However, The Weight of Water and K-19: The Widowmaker were critical and financial failures, and she fell quiet until Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker over five years later, for which she became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. She then dramatised the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the controversial Zero Dark Thirty, and tackled the 1967 riots of Detroit. She was once married to fellow director James Cameron, and directed episodes of Wild Palms and Homicide: Life on the Street.