Keanu ejaculates his weapon into the air. He is fury. Impotent with desire.
An indelible image, one that will be referenced and re-referenced within films for decades to come. For now, our rage represents those bullets. Every snarky joke, every ironic enthusiast. Every inferior remake that exists for no apparent reason, shorn of the original’s hunger and rough edges into a bleak commercial inconsequence. The bullets are useless; they waste away in the air.
It’s impossible to repeat Point Break. They don’t come around that often, and it takes some skill to master.
* * *
Keanu Reeves was not a star in 1991. He was a well-liked young comic actor. He was viewed as America’s family dog – cute and fun to be around. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) had proved to be a breakout hit. But fame and success was a riskier business in the nineties. Nowadays, multi-million pound properties are built around actors with a smidgen of popularity, so insecure is the film industry. Entire careers are being built by thoroughly mediocre English actors (Hiddleston, Cumberbatch) based on a sizable following on twitter/tumblr/grindr. Back then, success could anchor you down. The industry was still operating on the premise that franchises needed a strong directorial presence. Stars were too risky. The public saw them as distant and unobtainable – the paparazzi were not the swarm they are now, there was no social media to bring us…closer (yuck!). Many actors were unable to escape the shadow of their most famous role. Typecasting was still a thing.
Reeves was in danger of this, and to some extent he still hasn’t been able to escape the caricature of his breakout role. His natural calmness and dedication have too often been reduced to images of bland idiocy. The vanity of proving that you are not a one-trick-pony can seem desperate at times (Gyllenhaal, I’m looking at you). But Keanu was/is a far cannier operator than any will give him credit for. He knew that the era of the regular hero was over (Bruce Willis was struggling to maintain his posture) but that the cartoon, hyper-masculine testosterone of Arnie and Sly was out of reach for most audiences. The new kind of hero that he would come to embody would need to be someone better than you. Someone cooler, but not too out of reach. And more than any of this, the hero would need to appeal to women.
Patrick Swayze was increasing becoming objectified. The feminine gaze was dominating his career, and the roles he was taking were encouraging him to become a cypher of an attractive man (something that Keanu’s underlying vulnerability would allow him to surpass). In Road House (1989), Swayze was the epitome of cool. His half-naked torso and flash of arse cemented the Schwarzenegger model of male physical exposure. Road House is an essentially daft film, but bad-guy Ben Gazarra and monster trucks prevent it from ever being dull. Swayze’s characterisation of stillness and his half-remembered, diluted zen-like ethos, betray an underlying death wish. Within the film he wants to die, and will throw himself into any dangerous situation with little care for his personal wellbeing. Strange, that action movies so concerned with survival, often star characters who have no desire to live. Not even sex can save them.
Kathryn Bigelow was walking a fine line. No one knew how to take her, and it seems she was just fine with that. Every basic interview, every dull profile, every Wikipedia entry (there’s only one) lists her background in the world of conceptual art that is seemingly rejected for mainstream filmmaking. Every piece of writing also mentions her marriage to James Cameron, because sometimes that’s all women are despite their every success – wives. No one knew how to respond to her, such a violation was she to the mannered and formalised world of action cinema. Being a woman was enough to upset the balance of this world. Being a capable, (and in many cases, considerably more) talented director was enough to bring this world close to collapse.
She had directed a phallic, disruptive movie called Blue Steel (1989) which dared to explore ideas of desire, sexual compulsion and danger in a way that most other filmmakers would have simplified. It could have been the straightforward story of a rookie police officer hunting the psychosexual who caused her to be fired, but for Bigelow it was an exploration of strength and passion. Jamie Lee Curtis portrays a young woman devoted to her desire to become an officer of the law; it is an act that proves to be the retaliation to an abusive and violent father. Men have always taken from her, and she will take from them, most evidently in her appropriation of another’s uniform in the final pursuit and confrontation. The frenzied timeline of the movie proves to be a whirlwind within which Bigelow advocates that women have to begin to take from the patriarchy in order to counter-act the obstacles that they will place in a woman’s path. Sex is dangerous within the film, but in a way that does not negate the physical desire that is often the only tone that is presented on screen. Sex is vulnerable and empowering, meaningless and meaningful simultaneously. Few have managed to capture this. Blue Steel is a corruptive picture as it seeks to present a vision of femininity within the action genre – Bigelow’s eye now turned to present a feminised version of hyper-masculinity.
Reeves wanted to define a new kind of star. Bigelow wanted to define a new kind of action film. They just needed the right time and place.
* * *
From the very start Bigelow imbues her film with a sense of necessity. Water is life-sustaining and refreshing, but sea water carries hidden dangers. Bigelow transforms the swirl and foam into a form of abstract imagery – it is impossible to make sense of movements and direction within the sea. The sea stretches for miles until we reach the shore. Breathtakingly, she shoots into the low sun, imbibing the water with a golden glow that further abstracts the image. It will be impossible for a figure to maintain its presence within the water.
There is an inherent difficulty in filming water in that it is hard to get cameras wet. It is even harder to film motion on a wave, such is the distance that surfers need to keep from each other in order to stay safe. There are deadly undercurrents. Everytime we ride a wave in this movie we are tempting fate so suddenly could we get lost. Are we aware of this? Or do we sit back in our seats and surrender to the incoherency of movement and ripple and splash?
The establishment is represented by ties and suits and testosterone and glib, meaningless quips. The male desire to control others will diminish in the face of the onslaught of water. The water reveals the limits of language – “young, dumb and full of cum” means nothing. The fact that this spunk-filled police officer cannot control the wave means nothing. He will drown…then he is saved. The thumbs-up is no T2 revelation of humanity – it is the everyday; a sign of survival not death.
Presidents rob banks. The film toys with a direct honesty than can only be endearing. Of course presidents rob banks…they rob the electorate after all. But these are the rubber-faced masquerade of presidents, a commercial caricature, one that holds no awe for the responsibility of office. They follow a path of non-violence; an ethic that a few commanders-in-chief would have benefitted from. The presidents are observed on CCTV footage, a reminder of the institution of state intrusion – that every move we make is watched and monitored for the sake of an unsustainable security. Like any great technological invention designed to bring greater freedom (most notably the internet) CCTV has not prevented a robbery, it has just helped us see someone’s arse.
From this moment forward, the attraction of pursuing the physical embodiment of justice becomes deeply personal. Keanu is after someone’s bum. More intimate than fingerprints, Keanu will sublimate himself to find this person’s posterior. Women will feature in this film, as they often do to provide a safe space of homosexual longing, but this film is about two men, each after the other’s body.
Keanu’s body stands in bold defiance of Schwarzenegger’s. The cartoonish lump of oak has been pruned to a lithe, nubile frame. Keanu is almost boyish in his physique. It is not something to aspire to, but something to desire, so unthreatening in its vulnerability. The buff is replaced by a twink. Keanu was setting out his stall, that the nineties were to be about youth and energy and optimism. The crass brutality of the eighties was over, and this era needed a new hero. Keanu began to embody an alternative subculture that existed around the fringes of America. One of surfers, and grunge bands and teenagers. His casual acting, his childish frame, his mellow philosophy gave a voice to a more colourful, more optimistic decade, however misguided these intentions were.
Like the ocean, the surface of Keanu was never enough. The intense scowl that rarely leaves his face is that of a man struggling to present a depth of feeling. At night-time the scowl flickers in the firelight and the sea becomes further abstracted through shadow swirling in the background. Keanu is meant to embody a generation, but he can never fit in. He is too rich to be an everyman, too good-looking to be ordinary, to focussed and ambitious to be the deadbeat he was so quickly mocked to be. As he progresses further in his career, Reeves will explore the extent of his loneliness; roles he takes on will often be those of men lost and misunderstood by those around them.
As the criminals begin to recognise the limits of their non-violence, Bigelow begins to set out her stall as one of the great action directors. The botched raid on the drug house begins an experience of violence that will run through her movies. But unlike the wanton destruction that characterises so many an action movie, Bigelow is almost solely concerned with the effects of violence on a single individual. People are not empty machines for her, and the physicality of the performance remains crucial. Eyes (lenses?) are almost pierced through the ferocity of feral scissor-wielders.
It’s not an uncontroversial position to take to praise Bigelow for her direction of action scenes. The extended chase sequence on foot remains a high point of the genre. Bigelow creates the camera in as much motion as the actors/stunt performers are doing so themselves. It tumbles and sways as it struggles to keep up the breathless pursuit just moments ahead of it. Exemplary action scenes are able to convey a sense of the geographical space in which they take place; and whilst we are never clear of where we are and where we are going next, Bigelow ensures that the labyrinthine sequence of alleys, back gardens, and penetrated properties flow from one location to the next. There is no time for you to know where you are, there is only one foot followed by the other.
The panting increases. The desire for physical contact (embrace?) rises exponentially. Johnny Utah understands that he has been after Bohdi all this time. Bohdi who seemed to hold all the answers to the navigation of existence. Bohdi who seemed to the know the path above capitalism is revealed to only able to exist through his theft of money. Bohdi is fake, and the shame of desiring and admiring such a fraudulent fella is too much for Keanu. We all love the bad boys don’t we? Utah screams, firing his gun into the air. It is a great expression of the self-loathing and dissatisfaction that can come from ejaculation, regardless of the immediate physical pleasures. The body exists as separate to the mind. He shouldn’t want Bohdi so much, but he does, though he cannot perform, forcing him to engage in an act of public onanism. It’s the cinematic equivalent of cumming in a tissue.
But we cannot be allowed to confront this possibility of a portrayal of homosexual desire. As with so many action movies, the homoerotic desire needs to be neutered. So Keanu sleeps with his love interest. But Bigelow will not allow us to shy away from the essential queerness of these movies. Keanu’s love interest is a reflection. Boyish haircut, husky voice, petite frame. It’s hard to know who is who in the half-light of intercourse. Does this mirror-image constitute a further representation of masturbation? That Utah wants a man but cannot fully admit his feelings, so can only engage in sexual acts with himself. Keanu would come to embody the confused young man; full of desire, but unable to indulge through the deeply conservative sexual and religious morals of his culture.
Reeves was able to navigate the fundamental queerness of the role he was playing through the sweet earnestness that he brought to his characterisation. He would not trade in quips or catchphrases (he knew the danger of these through his role as Bill or Ted. I forget which.) instead choosing to focus on direct expressions of emotion. It’s deeply endearing, and part of the reason why he was able to become so popular when he stood in direct contrast to the muscular masculinity of his action movie star peers. His delivery of lines – and often unconventional emphasis on certain words – is unavoidable. This is not an actor who is going to play by anyone else’s playbook.
When he is knocked out, everything turns to blue. Bigelow chooses to make the colour a sign of danger and unsettled existence. Orange is freedom. Everything is dangerous. Existence is tough to navigate and can end at any moment. The openness of the sea is replaced by the openness of the sky. Man can seek to dominate nature, but the vastness of these entities ensures we are subatomic in comparison. The girl is rescued, but the result is unsatisfactory. Life no longer can hold any meaning, and the futility of existence is revealed.
In the closing moments of the film, Utah finds Bohdi alone on a beach. His pursuit of the object of his desire has become almost stalker-ish. When finally presented with the opportunity to express his hunger for Bohdi, he is unable to do so. And in failing to do so, he is unable to continue with the futility of law-enforcement. Utah walks away from a life. He remains alone, a monastic celluloid movie star, consigned to his asceticism.
* * *
Point Break more than any other film we watch will be torn apart over the subsequent years. Its themes will be ignored; images and moments will be heightened and replayed. Hot Fuzz (2007) delights (with some degree of tedious irony) in replaying the moments of desire over and again, but cannot bring itself to confront the essential queerness of the images with any degree of maturity. But the plot of Point Break will prove more sustainable. By the start of the next decade it will essentially be remade in The Fast and the Furious (2001), its amber skies and blue oceans transformed into a garish neon-lit Los Angeles. Cars replace surfboards, machinery replaces nature.
We will follow Keanu’s career throughout the remaining years of this decade, but Swayze was to become meaningless. Point Break is a tough film to watch from this perspective as it is the sight of one established, talented actor becoming obsolete in front of our eyes as he is replaced by a softer, more likeable version of himself. Reeves and Swayze both played upon an inherent coolness to their roles, but Swayze would be too entwined with the kitsch classics of the eighties, and Keanu was shining the way forward. There are few films in the following years of Swayze’s career of any real worth, now that we’ve all agreed on the irrelevancy of Donnie Darko (2001).
Bigelow would continue to navigate the choppy waters of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Her subsequent film (Strange Days – 1995) is a sleazy, voyeuristic delight. A film that takes enormous pleasure in encountering the inner perversions of desiring others, it explores the inevitable violence that would occur once our aimless, drifting sexual fantasies become reality. It features a never-better Angela Bassett. She would make a worthy addition to the submarine genre in K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) (though it’s no Crimson Tide – 1995) but would find great success in the twinned films about the second Gulf conflict – The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Both have a faintly patronising directness to their politics that can be distracting but feature moments of extraordinary tension. Accolades and respect would follow, The Hurt Locker beating James Cameron’s Avatar (2008) to the Best Picture Oscar. Though one of the greatest pleasures in life is Cameron’s complete denial of the legitimacy this fact.
* * *
Point Break is a wonder. A cerulean-blue and sunset-orange masterpiece. It bought a new body to the action movie in the form of the lithe, laid-back Keanu Reeves, and confronted the underlying homerotic desire of these pictures with an admirable intelligence. But it was easy to mock, to reduce and compress, and this prevented it truly becoming a blueprint for the future. More perniciously, it made it easy for executives to prevent women from helming these types of pictures, and reduced Bigelow’s sizeable talents to an outlier, rather than the industry standard. The Boy’s Club was going to stay as a Boy’s Club, and like all clubs, it had a sizeable element of weirdness.