California, Show Your Teeth: Point Break’s Beautiful Contradiction

Look, I’m not here to Stan for Point Break.

I’m a middle-aged white dude. I love Point Break. It’s a given. 

Basic? Perhaps.

As Fuck? Okay, sure.

And yet, it’s a complicated Basicness. This is a movie that cries out for smug, ironic appreciation, but any attempt at ironic love ends up more Basic than just loving it earnestly, a paradox proved by Seattle comedy nerds years ago.

It’s a beautiful contradiction: a film ridiculous in conceit, sublime in execution. I love it, I think it’s a near-perfect movie, I try not to make a big thing out of it. 

And why is Point Break nearly perfect?

Many reasons: the impeccable direction and editing; out-of this-world action sequences and crack stunt work; killer performances.

But greater than the sum of these things is its tone, its vibe–distinctive, exciting, sharp but dull, shallow but deep, ridiculous but sublime. 

Sound like anyone you know?

Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah represents casting perfection. He is only one part of the movie, but, fractal-like, contains its entirety.

This was Keanu’s big transition, perfectly eliding his dopey past into his action-star future. Because, for those of you too young to know, Keanu made his bones playing a dumb-dumb.

Only it didn’t seem like acting.

As a matter of popular agreement, dude was bad. That gangly, bobble-headed carriage and that voice that seemed the distillation of Southern California vapidity–where could it possibly work? 

In a movie about bank-robbing surfers, of course. 

Because Point Break is a movie about California, and by extension, America. In a pre- Goop/SoulCycle/Joe Rogan world, it evoked a now-familiar zone of overlap between aggro-bro athleticism and weirdo west coast spirituality. The Ex-Presidents were the descendants of the Manson Family, and that’s how generations of inlanders and east-coasters saw Californians: hippies, gurus, surfers and sportsmen.

Who also kill people.

 A place ridiculous and sublime. A beautiful contradiction. 

It is all captured in Keanu Reeves’ voice. The Hindus have a concept called shabda brahman— roughly, the idea that God can be present in sound. I am not saying Keanu’s voice is divine, ummm it ain’t, but it does emit the perfect nano-frequency of dopey earnestness at which the entire movie operates.

“I am an F.B.I. agent!”

You hear it, I know you do.

You ask yourself, did he mean to say it that way?

It doesn’t matter.

These words can only be delivered in Keanu-cadence. His vocal quality and acting style are one and the same, communicating an endlessly entertaining tension between chill Brah and guy trying really, really hard to be a good actor. It’s a tension that was just waiting to be found and embodied by Johnny Utah (and by the way–one of the great character names).

Far from the midwestern square remade as California surfer that the script would have, Keanu’s Johnny is a California surfer inexplicably wearing the clothes of a midwestern square. He gives off exactly zero Ohio vibes. He’s supposed to be a quarterback but he throws weird. Like California itself, he is preposterously goofy yet strangely believable on his own terms. 

There is, of course, also the small matter of Patrick Swayze. As Bodhi, he is the precisely perfect counterweight. The sublime to Keanu’s ridiculous.

Peak Swayze

Remakes of pop masterpieces like Point Break and Total Recall invariably fail, because they are IP. They only live to get radical; they never get the spiritual side of it. 

You are left with plenty of contradiction, but nothing beautiful.

12 thoughts on “California, Show Your Teeth: Point Break’s Beautiful Contradiction

  1. Just watched his on cable last night, again! I think PB is jealous and wants to catch up with my repeated viewings of Roadhouse! Great review, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting piece: it’s usually the stuff you can’t write down that makes something good, and you got that across well. Point Break came out during a stretch of several years when I hardly saw a movie, so I’m thinking I should maybe go back and fill in some blanks!

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    1. Thanks! Yeah, PB is definitely a great example of a movie that could have gone terribly wrong but succeeded thanks to the accumulation of so many good creative decisions. It’s a chemistry that can’t really be reproduced which is why remakes are doomed from the start. I think it’s time for a watch—especially if you have an LA connection. This flick def taps into some very strong California energy. Also prime Swayze (RIP). Thanks for reading!

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  3. As another middle aged white male, it is a given that I also love this movie. You nailed the reasons why it works perfectly. The remake was doomed from the start – you can’t recreate this film ever because it was all about Reeves and Swayze. And by the way, you are exactly right that I heard “F.B.I. agent” Keanu-style while reading your piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s one of the most quotable Keanu-isms in this movie! (There are many, of course). Yeah, it’s a bummer, seeing them try to recreate stuff from my youth that worked because it was a one-time chemistry between creatives. Like, the entire late 90s was just them trying to recreate grunge, which just ain’t happening without Cobain, Vedder, Cornell , etc. Thanks for reading!

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  4. Your words about this film and Keanu are as breathtaking as the film itself. I’ve seen many of his films and liked nearly all of them, but it wasn’t until John Wick that I saw just how far Keanu has come as an actor but also as screen presence.

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    1. Thanks a lot, I appreciate that. Yeah, I’ve gotta see the John Wick movies. I started the first one on HBO a few years ago but then got distracted and never really came back to it. It’s clear though, even from the previews, how Keanu has metamorphosed into something different as an older lead. Almost like how Liam Neeson had that late career rebirth as an action guy. I was thinking about doing kind of a companion piece to this one about Keanu’s early work, including his terrible, terrible miscasting in Dracula lol.

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