If you want to see Ronald Reagan rob a bank, hop in the car and drive to the nearest showing of Kathryn Bigelow's crime-and-surfing drama Point Break. As the leader of a holdup gang called the Ex-Presidents, Reagan terrorizes savings and loans along the Southern California coast. It's bipartisan felony, in fact, as Ron and fellow Republican Richard Nixon join forces with Democrats Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson, and the effect of the Presidential-garbed gang is eerie and striking. Watch LBJ pistol-whip a teller. Gaze in rapture as Nixon shovels fifties into a burlap bag. Gasp as Jimmy Carter pump-loads a shotgun. The visual bravado of the Ex-Presidents' heists suggests that director Bigelow, who managed half a good movie in last year's Blue Steel before she let it devolve into psychopap, has improved her game.
Don't get your hopes up. The first good idea in Point Break is also the last, and long after the novelty of shooting, looting chief executives has faded, you'll be squirming in your seat, combing your mind for other more productive things you could be doing, like sitting at home and watching your foot.
Keanu Reeves plays Johnny Utah, a college quarterback phenom whose wrecked knee and taste for adventure have landed him in the FBI. Dispatched to a special division in Southern California, Utah (whose name itself should be grounds for execution) is immediately assigned to a team investigating the Ex-Presidents robberies. His partner, Pappas (Gary Busey), is a Bureau veteran who at first can't stand the cocky young agent but soon grows to appreciate his energy and spirit. Clicheed?
As a result of some hideously improbable Pappas-Utah investigatory work, the FBI discovers that the bank robbers are surfers, and Utah is sent into the surf culture of Southern California. In the great experiment of Point Break, the surfers are portrayed not as beachfront dunces but as highly sophisticated beings whose dedication to the sea is indicative of a deep spirituality. Among them, Utah not only makes friends and falls in love (with Tyler, a waif played with near-total blandness by Lori Petty), but also learns to respect nature and to understand the metaphysical dynamic of thrill-seeking. Or so the filmmakers would have you believe. But any time the metaphysical agent is played by Patrick Swayze, you're in for B-movie
Hollywood is full of actors who have been typecast as brainless hulks and then enjoyed second careers by confounding those expectations. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, and Matt Dillon. Swayze, though, like Sylvester Stallone, is destined to stay stupid. Wherever he's been, from films that succeeded despite him (Dirty Dancing, Ghost) to films that gave him marquee billing and suffered for it (Roadhouse, Next of Kin), he's been the poster child for subcartoon idiocy, the kind of guy who needs a cue card just to say "uh."
In Point Break, he really goes over the edge. As surfing guru Bodhi (for Bodhisattva, the Buddhist term for an enlightened being who remains behind on earth to instruct others), Swayze sinks below Absolute Zero on the Mindometer. Bodhi, who takes Utah under his wing and serves as a sort of guide to the world of surf, has a philosophy of life that emerges from the dialectic between his board and his Sex Wax, and he spends his days meditating at the beach, looking intense, spouting dime-store platitudes ("Twice a century the ocean lets us know how small we really are," "It's us against the system, the system that kills the human spirit").
If he were in a movie all by himself - maybe a one-man show called "Two Plus Two Is What?" - Swayze would be containable, but when he shares the screen, those around him assume his vacancy. So feel only pity for Reeves, a sporadically fine actor (River's Edge, Tune In Tomorrow, Ted of Bill and Ted) whose only discernible skill here is the ability to stand alongside Swayze and deliver equally moronic dialogue. Busey and Petty, who merely are trivialized, should be thankful. And Bigelow and screenwriter W. Peter Iliff (as in "I'll get Iliff he writes another script") should be sent out with the tide. Is Point Break a bomb? Put it this way: The government drops movies like this on hostile nations.
From the very beginning of Bigelow's career (1981's The Loveless, which marked one of the early appearances of Willem Dafoe), she's been hailed as a revolutionary stylist, and the California beaches give her ample landscape on which to show flickers of that talent. The surfing scenes, especially a nighttime sequence, are filmed with beauty and confidence, and when the movie makes a late and unexplained turn toward skydiving, the spectacle heightens. But if Bigelow retains her ability to captivate the eye, she's also reiterated her disregard for other organs, most notably the brain. For its lack of plot, and its slick complacency, and its paper-thin characters, Point Break could very well be the worst thing in theaters this summer. It's this year's Ghost Dad, grating and irking every minute it remains on-screen. Edward D. Wood, Jr., the renowned director of staggeringly low-grade efforts such as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda?, would be proud. But even he wouldn't stay to watch the whole thing.
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Maybe pinning the blame on Swayze isn't fair. After all, he's only an actor, only doing his job. But someone has to take the fall, and it might as well be the slow guy. So here's an incoherent and surreal (but quite satisfying) therapy: Go to the dictionary, locate "dumb" (it should be between "Duma" and "dumbbell," or thereabouts), and inflate each of the word's letters to the size of a giant tire. Then affix all four inflated letters to a pickup truck and run it over Patrick Swayze's career. Up and back, up and back. Spare no expense. Put him out of our misery. Tell him quality control sent you.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; written by W. Peter Iliff; with Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey, Lori Petty, John McGinley, James Le Gros, Ping Wu, Jared Chandler, and John Apicella.
Now playing at major theaters in Dade and Broward counties.