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'Point Break' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 12, 1991

"Point Break," director Kathryn Bigelow's foray into the cosmic cult of surfer banditos, is an exercise in stylish lunkheadedness. It's gorgeous but dumb as a post; watching it is a bit like shooting the tube and then getting cracked on the head by your board.

The central character is a rookie FBI agent named Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), a "blue flamer" fresh out of Quantico, who is teamed up with an old vet named Pappas (Gary Busey) to crack the case of a gang of gonzo bank robbers who call themselves the Ex-Presidents. These four desperadoes are pros to the bone who work fast, with millisecond efficiency and a dash of counterculture wit. Their name comes from the rubber masks of Nixon, Reagan, Carter and LBJ that they wear during their holdups. The joke is that presidents have been ripping us off for years, so now they're just being more straightforward about it.

Bigelow is a heart-in-the-throat action director; she knows how to bring the screen to pulsing life, and she gives the gang's heists the jagged edginess of an adrenaline rush. From the start it's clear to the feds that this is no run-of-the-mill band of thieves; they're in and out in 90 seconds and leave practically nothing in the way of clues. But Pappas has a theory, though a far-fetched one: He thinks the crooks are surfers. And so he sends Utah undercover as a novice surf bum to infiltrate the California beach scene and flush out the gang.

This part of the story requires a considerable suspension of disbelief -- much more so, in fact, than most EEG-responsive moviegoers may be willing to permit. Utah's surfer targets are virtuosos. They live to surf; it's their religion, and they travel the globe, a kind of cult searching for the ultimate wave as if on a spiritual quest.

To gain admittance to this clan, Utah has to rise quickly to their level of daredevil skill. And to bring himself up to speed, he cons a pretty beach angel named Tyler (Lori Petty) into teaching him the basics. Once the elementary moves are mastered, though, another figure, a sage surf guru named Bodhi (short for Bodhisattva) steps in to initiate him into the Zen glories of the sport.

It's at this point that Bigelow's sand castles start getting washed away by the tide. Bodhi, who's played by a bleached-blond Patrick Swayze as if he comes by his Be-Here-Now serenity through endless hours of communion with his hookah, sees a kindred intensity in Utah's eyes, that kamikaze lust for the killer edge. Bodhi is a mystic quester, and the relationship that develops between the surfer and the detective is that of master and student. And through Bodhi's instruction -- and Utah's blossoming love affair with Tyler -- this buttoned-down FBI man begins to discover within himself an unexpected sense of contentment -- maybe not bliss, but something confusingly close to it.

Reeves is a perfect choice for the youthfully malleable Utah; as an actor, he seems perpetually on the verge of a thought that can't quite work its way to the surface. He's charismatically puppy-brained and, watching him, we get caught up in the slow-motion meshing of his mental gears.

There's a flaw here, though: Utah is much too slow to figure out that Bodhi and his buddies are the Ex-Presidents. (It's obvious who the gang leader is from the moment Swayze makes his entrance.) Also, Utah may have his mystical third eye opened up, but all this spiritual hotdogging only encourages us to shut down our interest in the film. The fault lies not so much with Swayze, who underplays engagingly in what amounts to a supporting role, as with the filmmakers' conception of his character. It's one thing to seek enlightenment on the back of a surfboard, but quite another to rob banks -- as a revolutionary gesture, a rebellion against the System -- to finance the quest.

Added to this, "Point Break" may be one of the most lamely plotted pictures since "Blue Steel," Bigelow's last film. To keep the movie in motion, the filmmakers have their characters make the most ludicrously illogical choices imaginable. A lot of what Bigelow puts up on the screen bypasses the brain altogether, plugging directly into our viscera, our gut. The surfing scenes in particular are majestically powerful, even awe-inspiring. Bigelow's picture is a feast for the eyes, but we watch movies with more than our eyes. She seduces us, then asks us to be bimbos.

Point Break is rated R and contains nudity and adult language.

Copyright The Washington Post

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