Working in the same mythopoetic vein that informs her stunning, postmodern vampire film Near Dark, director Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days) fashioned one of the most gorgeous, exhilarating and offbeat action-adventure flicks of the '90s. Perhaps because she is a female, Bigelow brings unique perspective to this staunchly male genre. Point Break packs all the standard action movie conventions -- screaming car chases, bloody shootouts, high-tech hardware, kinetic fistfights, and macho posturing -- into an action film that's anything but conventional. The story transplants the classic western to the beaches of Los Angeles, as young FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) goes undercover as a surfer to catch a band of wave-riding bank robbers led by the charismatic Bodie (short for "Bodhisattva"). As portrayed by Patrick Swayze, this Zen surf master is a peripatetic modern cowboy who'd rather die free than succumb to the society's constraints. Bigelow emphasizes the bond that develops between Bodie and Utah, as the lawman falls under the renegade's spell, making for a film ripe with homoerotic subtext. The romance between Utah and Bodie's former girlfriend, a tough female surfer named Tyler (Lori Petty), is compelling only in that Tyler is so androgynous that's she clearly a stand-in for the true object of Utah's attraction. Reeves is laughable as an FBI agent, though he looks great in a wetsuit; while Swayze, radiating suitably deranged intensity from his slit-like blue eyes, is pitch perfect as an idealistic sociopath who spouts half-baked Buddhist philosophy about achieving oneness with the sea. In order to maintain their wave-chasing way of life, he and his gang of surf bums commit bank jobs, disguised as ex-presidents by means of grotesquely accurate rubber masks. It's an inspired idea, which translates into some surreal and delightfully subversive visual moments -- the image of Ronald Reagan gleefully torching a car is pure brilliance. Bigelow is no Hollywood hack.With an artist's eye she paints a dark, richly textured portrait of L.A.'s surfing subculture that is an antidote to the inane, sunny naiveté of '60s beach movies, while the thrillingly photographed surfing footage and awe-inspiring skydiving scenes convey the pure adrenaline rush these thrill seekers live and die for. Sure, Point Break is ridiculous, but why think too hard about it? To paraphrase Bodie, just let it wash over you.
Point Break is a good example of a wholly flawed piece of filmmaking that still manages to entertain. The screenplay sputters, veers and stumbles for almost two hours, Keanu Reeves gives a god-awful performance, and the film's veneer of a spiritual agenda is almost deplorably laughable. However, there are enough interesting quirks and decent action sequences to make it a howl to watch. Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis and the young Tom Sizemore make memorable cameos, and as the lead villain, Patrick Swayze is an over-the-top riot. The film might have worked better had it stayed within the realm of action camp, instead of attempting to be taken seriously: Kathryn Bigelow's screenplay and direction are painfully all over the map. Still, there are some stunning stunts and terrific surfing action, and excellent MTV style camerawork that makes for adrenaline-filled fun -- despite the fact that the film is by and large ridiculous and inane.