Heartthrob Cop. Cyberpunk Courier. Kung-fu Criminal. Hacker Christ. Keanu Reeves’ charm and consistency have kept him in the echelon of America’s movie-star sweethearts, particularly in an age where everything else has gone to complete shit. This September, Midwest Film Journal is shining a spotlight on some of his best roles. Replacement Quarterback. Garage Rockstar. Devil’s Advocate. Haunted Assassin. It’s a Keanu World Order. We’re just living in it.
1991’s Point Break marks a seismic shift in the career of Keanu Reeves. Two years prior, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was an unlikely hit, giving Reeves a measure of recognition if not abject stardom. Before that he had been largely a TV actor, although a role in the Oscar-winning Dangerous Liaisons in 1988 was no doubt a boon in his career.
But Bill and Ted could easily be written off as a lark, the sort of cult hit that had bitten off, chewed up and spit out countless actors throughout the 1980s. So it’s no stretch to say Reeves was something less than a proven commodity when cast in Kathryn Bigelow’s surfers-turned-bank-robbers flick as the ’90s awakened.
And while it wasn’t Reeves’ acting talent that made Point Break a hit, it absolutely launched his career, showing Hollywood he had what it took to headline tentpole blockbusters. Just look at how the 1990s treated him — breaking his acting chops off in films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the big-budget Shakespeare adaptation Much About Nothing, dramas like Little Buddha and My Own Private Idaho (the latter one of River Phoenix’s last films) before a run of big-budget action flicks — including Speed, Johnny Mnemonic, Chain Reaction and The Matrix, which sent him into a different stratosphere.
Had Point Break not hit — grossing $83 million worldwide against a $24 million budget — Reeves may have never had the cred to land those roles and gone down a different career path.
Aside from the silly premise — wherein surfing bank robbers led by Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi are stalked by greenhorn FBI agent Johnny Utah (Reeves) and his little-respected rust-bucket partner (Gary Busey) — Point Break’s main surface curiosity is its director, Kathryn Bigelow. Her relationship with action maestro James Cameron perhaps nudged her over the top in an era where women rarely got the job to call the shots on hardscrabble, testosterone-soaked, buddy-cop-cum-deep-cover action films.
In Bigelow’s hands, what could have been a pedestrian take on the buddy cop genre, mixed with the “in too deep” seduction of undercover work becomes a study in toxic masculinity — adding a layer of substance to this film of excess where cars careen around corners and cops chase robbers through city streets, firing guns indiscriminately and leaping from planes (sometimes without a parachute).
As Break opens, Johnny is starting his first day of work in the Los Angeles bureau of the FBI. His boss (John C. McGinley) is a smarmy prick who lives to verbally abuse his subordinates. Johnny is partnered with the slovenly Angelo Pappas (Busey), who most feel has outlived his usefulness, not the least of which is Pappas himself.
We learn Johnny is a former quarterback for the Ohio State Buckeyes. An on-field injury ended his career and shot at superstardom, and “FBI agent” was his fallback plan. As unlikely as that transition may be —notwithstanding Reeves, he of the signature surfer-dude cadence, playing a Midwesterner — even more unlikely might be the theory Pappas ascribes to a series of unsolved bank robberies. The gang’s penchant for wearing rubber masks of Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon B. Johnson during their robberies has earned them the nickname “The Ex-Presidents.”
And the Ex-Presidents, Pappas theorizes, are surfers.
So the young Johnny learns to surf and eventually hooks up with the Ex-Presidents, unwittingly befriending them.
Point Break is still an exceedingly silly movie, and there’s no doubt Bigelow recognizes the folly of these clichés come to life. It’s a film that Busey OWNS in his screen time, with Reeves often playing his straight man. Busey delivers lines like “I’m so hungry I could eat the ass-end out of a dead rhino” and “I was in this bureau while you were still popping zits on your funny face and jacking off to the lingerie section of the Sears catalog” as if they tasted like ice cream.
It would be easy to read the film’s tagline, “100 Percent Pure Adrenaline,” and expect a film that glorifies living fast, screwing hard and dying young, but Bigelow’s film doesn’t go that route. That lifestyle drags down everyone in the film, from Bodhi and his gang of live-for-the-moment ruffians to Johnny, Pappas and Tyler (Lori Petty), Johnny’s love interest who also has an affiliation with the Ex-Presidents.
Let’s start at the top: The FBI office is dripping with masculinity, with only a couple of female agents even shown and even then mostly there to make moon eyes at Johnny while egging him on in landing a side piece (Sydney Walsh). McGinley’s Ted Harp is the prototypical captain of the era — from his loud, unnecessarily insulting bluster to screaming at his charges without so much as a shred of direction. He’s there to tell them how worthless they are.
Pappas, for his part, doesn’t care about much of anything, but bonds with Johnny anyway. He is Johnny’s father figure, albeit one that dares him to do something dangerous then chides him when he actually does. He also offers advice on killing perps: “It’s just like target practice, only there’s more to clean up.”
Johnny is forced to start off his relationship with Tyler with a lie; he purposefully creates a backstory that exploits her weak spot (dead parents) to get her to fall for him. While Johnny expresses remorse throughout the film for these tactics, he still gleefully beds her at the first opportunity and then keeps up the lie to maintain his cover.
Bodhi and Johnny have the most toxic, codependent relationship of them all. They feed on each other’s chasing of the next natural high, of that next shot of adrenaline. For Bodhi, it’s skirting the bounds of the law and robbing banks while he continually preaches a Zen-master persona to the rest of the world. For Johnny, it’s taking football-field thrills and glory to the next level — with the ability to shoot someone.
And Bodhi’s thrill-seeking eventually takes out his entire gang of compadres — who share his obsession for the wild life as they tell stories, largely for Bodhi’s amusement.
As flammable as her personality is, Tyler represents the film’s emotional core. She has the poise of a disapproving big sister to Bodhi’s group and to Bodhi himself (although, as his ex, she knows she can’t control him). Instead, she settles for prodding his buddies; when Bodhi’s disciple Roach calls catching a tube “better than sex,” she quips “Maybe that’s ’cause you’re not doing it right.” Tyler also is taken with Johnny and hooked by her instinct to keep him from killing himself in the surf, and she presses him when she senses he’s about to open up later in the film.
But in the end, she’s unable to stop Bodhi and Johnny’s self-destructive relationship, becoming Bodhi’s pawn in his climactic manipulation of Johnny. It’s each man’s ego, and obsession with the ultimate thrill, that causes everything to go wrong. For Bodhi, it’s his insistence that Johnny, his cover blown, accompany them on their last bank robbery, then playing games with him and breaking the gang’s rule of never going into the vault — decisions that give an off-duty cop the opening to step in, leading to lives lost both among the Ex-Presidents and the innocent robbery victims.
For Johnny, his obsession with catching Bodhi leads to Pappas’s death. Johnny has been arrested for his role in the bank robbery, but he and Pappas, obsessed with catching the crooks, skip the booking and go rogue to pursue what’s left of the gang.
Bodhi eventually escapes, his way of life costing the lives of all of his friends. In the film’s fitting coda, Johnny finds Bodhi on Bell’s Beach in Australia — right where he said he’d be, ready to ride the waves caused by the “50-Year Storm” Bodhi opined about earlier in the film. The ultimate in thrill-seeking, a ride that will likely cost Bodhi his life and one more trip that Johnny ultimately can’t bear to deny him. If he wants to kill himself, let him, says the man who, just minutes of screen time earlier, leaped from a plane without a parachute.
And while Johnny and Bodhi both look older and perhaps wiser in that final scene, the world is weary — especially on Johnny’s face. The implication is that Tyler didn’t stick around; all he talks about is work — finding “an unclaimed piece of meat” that was Rosie, the man who held Tyler hostage with orders from Bodhi to brutally kill her unless told otherwise.
So there is Johnny Utah at film’s close — a man with no friends left, who gives cinematic notice to his bosses by throwing his badge into the ocean. He’s alone with his own memories, which he finds sour and unfulfilling.
If Point Break didn’t make Reeves on its own merits, the film certainly showed Hollywood’s power structure that he could carry a film, even as he had help from Swayze (a star in his own right at the time). It also marked a step beyond the Lethal Weapon buddy-cop formula, inched into the murkier and more self-aware 1990s, and set the stage for Reeves’ biggest triumphs at the box office.