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Point Break: When surfers go bad...

posted by Mickey on 7/04/02

The fifty year storm

Please give generously to People Who Melt. Imagine the suffering of people who burn from within, leaving nothing behind but their teeth or heart. "No one speaks about this, but it's for real."- Keanu Reeves. It is time to expose the cover-up. Open your heart to the forgotten people. The People Who Melt. YOU CAN HELP. This appreciation of "Point Break" is a benefit piece for the victims of this hidden scourge. We can make a difference. Read this article and show you care for People Who Melt.

Address all cheques and money orders to von Hangman Enterprises.

I want to make more of a difference? What can I do?

As crucial as the issue of spontaneous self combustion is, after giving the matter a good deal of thought, I can not in all conscience recommend W-D readers write to the President of the United States about this issue. As the leader of the free world, he is a busy man. On the other hand, ex-Presidents have a lot of time on their hands. Write to ex-Presidents about the silent holocaust, and they can pass on your concerns to the incumbent. Ronald Reagan is an ex-President who may particularly appreciate lurid tales of people blowing up because, let's face it, stories of this nature will be as fresh to him the fiftieth time he reads them as the first.

What is the best film ever made? Meaningless question. What is my favourite film? Well, I have a long list. "Breakfast at Tiffanys", and "The Breakfast Club" would be two of my favourite movies containing the word "Breakfast" in their titles. But my favourite movie of the 90s, by a long margin, and one of my top two or three favourite movies of all time, is "Point Break." If they had called it "Point Breakfast" it would easily have pride of place on the breakfast movies list. If you haven't seen this film, I recommend you hotfoot it to the nearest Blockbuster and secure a copy. Even better, if you ever have a chance to see it on the big screen, don't miss it, because it is a true cinema experience. The next paragraph will be redundant for people who have seen the film and will spoil the plot for those who have yet to see it, so it can be safely ignored by all.

"Point Break" is the story of rookie FBI Agent, Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), who goes undercover as a surfer on the beaches of Southern California to test the theory of his partner, Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), that a gang of bankrobbers named the ex-Presidents, after the rubber masks they wear, are members of that community. Utah becomes friends with some of the surfers, including the charismatic Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and enters a romance with Bodhi's ex-girl friend, Tyler (Lori Petty). After a raid on the main suspects (the Red Hot Chilli Peppers) goes wrong, Utah comes to discover that the ex-presidents are actually Bodhi and his friends. Utah and Pappas fail to intercept a bank raid by the ex-presidents, because of Pappas's insatiable craving for the really good meatball sandwiches they make at a food stand not far away from the targeted bank. With Utah's cover blown, and with Tyler in the hands of the gang, he is taken skydiving by the ex-presidents on their way to the next bank job, which is botched, because Bodhi becomes too ambitious. By the time the getaway is finished, Pappas, all of the bankrobbers except Bodhi, and a few unfortunate sundry other citizens of LA have been killed. In the final scene of the movie, Utah has hunted Bodhi down to Bells Beach in Victoria, Australia, where the "fifty year storm" has created the some of the most radical tubes any surfer could ever want to encounter. Although Utah gets Bodhi in his handcuffs, he releases him to meet his destiny in the next tsunami hitting the shore.

"Point Break" contains four or five action sequences, any one of which would have sufficed to make a film memorable. For a single motion picture to contain not just one, but all of these sequences, one after the other, indicates to me a film-making talent that was, at that moment, almost out of control. The film was made by originally designed to be directed by Ridley Scott, but he was distracted with some other project and it ended up being directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who is probably otherwise better known as Mr James Cameron than as the director of "Blue Steel" and "Strange Days" and "The Weight of Water," all films with something to recommend them, but no match for "Point Break".

Kathryn Bigelow bringing Keanu Reeves into closer focus

For example, anyone who saw the otherwise unremarkable cheerleader film, "Sugar and Spice," will remember the scene where my compatriot Melissa George and her fellow eye-candy desperadoes rob a bank while dressed as dolls. It is a direct homage to the bank robbery scenes in "Point Beak," which is the polite way of saying it was a complete ripoff (with a subordinate homage/ripoff of "Reservoir Dogs" thrown in for good measure). But when I said anyone who saw the film would remember the scene, I meant it, because even as a pale echo of "Point Break" the scene stays in one's memory banks. "Point Break," though, does not just hang its hat on the bank robbery sequences. There is the raid on the Red Hot Chilli Pepper household with Pappas having to rescue Utah from a motor mower and culminating in Pappas holding his pistol on a Pepper and shouting, "Speak into the microphone, squidbrain." And then there is Utah's pursuit of Ronald Reagan, after the Assurred Savings and Loan heist, which begins as a car chase, and seems to reach its climax at the petrol station with one of the most memorable single shots in cinema, of Reagan/Bodhi turning the petrol bowser into an impromptu flame thrower.

Excuse me, mate. Have you got a light?

The foot chase that follows has a weird tension because it presents a quarter-back jock pursuing a frail old man in a dinner jacket. (Yeah I know he is Patrick Swayze, but he is in a mask, right). It is also the only time the film locates itself in Ronald Reagan's middle-class, suburban constituency and on a symbolic level, I take it that this is what accounts for Reagan/Bodhi's uncanny ability to turn the domestic clutter he encounters to his advantage, most memorably when he throws a dog into Utah's face. This sequence, like the whole rest of the movie, features some exemplary action editing and cinematography. Anybody would-be director who aspires to ever make an action movie should watch this passage over and over again.

Then, and above all, there is the scene that single-handedly gave birth to a little sub-genre of 90s movies, ie. films where characters jump out of aeroplanes without parachutes on. I remember very little about the plot lines of either "Drop Zone" or "Terminal Velocity" except these sequences, which grew in absurdity to the point to the point where airborne villains were locking heroines into the trunks of cars, and then rolling the cars out of aeroplanes, along with a stove and a couple of bench tops and a well- stocked refrigerator, while meanwhile it was being established as a plot point that for the villains to be defeated, not only would the heroines have to be rescued from the trunk of the plummeting vehicle, but they would then have to cook up a roast lamb dinner with a side order of garlic potatoes, and carrots served with a honey glaze, and a salad, not to mention a desert, before overcoming the villains, securing their parachutes and ripping the chord just in time to land safely.

After watching a couple of films where people hardly ever stepped out of planes wearing parachutes and where every iota of the script writers' ingenuity was expended on coming up with scenarios to explain the sudden preponderance of human mass toppling out of the sky and choreographing the things they could do while flapping around up there, it is probably impossible to recover the emotion I felt when I first saw "Point Break," because when Keanu Reeves jumped out of that aeroplane, sans parachute, my jaw literally dropped open with surprise.

"I love this downrush shit!" This amazing image is of genuine ex-President George Bush jumping out of an aeroplane wearing a parachute. What a wimp!

There is more to "Point Break," however, than just its action sequences. For one thing, this was the movie that fired off the whole Keanu thing that has been such an important part of my life for the last 10 years. Keanu Reeves. What is there left to say? Plenty, I hope, as I have committed myself to writing three more posts about this wooden looking doofus with acting skills that can charitably be described as limited. Actually, the script for "Point Break" contains a telling description of Keanu Reeves's acting style, in the first love scene between Utah and Tyler.

TYLER. Look at you.

UTAH. What?

TYLER. Well, usually you have this sort of intense scowl of concentration, like you're doing this for a school project or something.

I don't want to concentrate on Keanu, however, or for that matter on Lori Petty, the actress who plays Tyler. I will only say that it is difficult to believe that at the time this movie was made, Lori Petty seemed to have a bright future as an actress. She was probably cast in "Point Break" because of her ability, demonstrated in "Free Willy" to wear a wetsuit, but she is just perfect for the role and I, for one, regret the fact that she appeared to irrevocably destroy her career by consenting to appear in "Tank Girl." Actresses who played opposite Keanu Reeves at this stage of his career almost invariably suffer from looking noticeably less beautiful than he does, but Lori Petty gives him a better run for his money than most, delivers all her lines with an adorable huskiness in her voice, and presents as an independent and feisty character.

At least Lori Petty is more attractive than Patrick Swayze.


Although, ostensibly, the protagonist of "Point Break" is Johnny Utah, there is no question whatsoever that the central character of the film is Bodhi. As competent as Patrick Swayze is in famous eighties movies like "Roadhouse", "Dirty Dancing," and "Ghost," nothing in any of these films prepares you for the intensity of his performance as Bodhi. From his first appearance riding his surfboard with whitewater thundering behind him until the climax of the movie, when a fifty-foot-tall mountain of this same whitewater collapses on him, whenever he is on the screen, he commands attention completely. Cinema is a visceral medium. Anyone who is seeking profound philosophical or religious insights would probably be better off reading a volume of Nietzsche or a copy of "The Fire Sermon" than renting "Point Break" but Bodhi's character clearly draws on both sources.

BODHI. They [The Red Hot Chilli Peppers] have no respect for the sea. They just want to get radical. It's mindless aggression. They'll never get it, the spiritual side of it.

UTAH. You always talk like this? You're not going to start chanting or something are you?

BODHI [laughing] I might.

Bodhi considers whether or not to chant

Bodhi's character marries the Buddhist philosophy of living within the moment with the Nietszchian ideal of the ubermensch:

UTAH. Bodhi, this is your wake up call, man -- I am an FBI agent!

BODHI. Wild, ain't it? See, we exist on a higher plane, you and I. We make our own rules. Why be a servant of the law Johnny U... when you can be it's master?

For my money, the best scene in the movie occurs as the Ex-Presidents gather around a campfire on the beach, after Utah has identified himself as an FBI agent by trying to intercept their bank job. Bodhi's eyes light up as he says:

This was never about money for us. It was about us against the system. The system that kills the human spirit. We stand for something. To those dead souls inching along the freeways in their metal coffins, we show them that the human spirit is alive.

Now, mind you, the massacre at the end of the movie, when the Ex-Presidents' last bank robbery is botched, is not strikingly illustrative of how the human spirit can be kept alive, so I don't want to be seen to be endorsing Bodhi's methods here, but the fact that what the ex-Presidents do is dangerous, reprehensible, and has tragic consequences, doesn't mean that there isn't a system out there that acts to crush the human spirit under a dead weight of murky conformist materialistic crap. And I'll return to this appreciation of Kathryn Bigelow's "Point Break," following this word from our sponsor.

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Lift the veil of silence that has fallen on this. Write to ex-presidents asking them to fill their otherwise empty lives by joining this crusade. Send money to the von Hangman Foundation. Wear wet tee-shirts. When you see an attractive woman posing for a publicity photograph in a wet tee-shirt, don't snigger or make derisive sexist remarks. She is taking a sensible precaution.

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Top Hollywood actors, Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves, agree it is better to be safe than sorry.

Before losing the patience of my readers, I'd like to finish this post by looking quickly at two of the subsidiary characters in "Point Break". The decision to cast Gary Busey, one of my favourite actors of all time, as Angelo Pappas was an inspired one because, apart from the enormous relish Busey brings to his reading of lines like:

Listen you snot nose little shit. I was taking shrapnel in Khe Sahn while you were still crapping in your hands and rubbing it on your face.


Here, Scooby. Where are, you, boy? Here, Scooby, you furball piece of shit.


Harp, let me tell you something. I was an agent in this bureau when you were still popping zits on your funny face and jacking off to the lingerie section of the Sears Catalogue

there is the fact that he starred in the John Milius's classic surfing movie from the early 1970s, "Big Wednesday"; and to see him reappear in "Point Break" is just one of those deeply satisfying casting choices that from time to time make it appear all worthwhile to have watched all those hundreds of movies.

Speak into the microphone, squidbrain!!!

The other casting choice I wanted to applaud will, I suspect, mean less to most of my readers, but those who know where I am coming from will already be nodding their heads in agreement. At the start of the closing sequence of the movie, we see wipers sweeping over the windscreen of Utah's car as he drives into the shopping centre of Bell's Beach, Victoria (which, by the way, bears no resemblance to shopping centre of Bell's Beach, Victoria) while on the radio, a weatherman with an unbelievably broad Australian accent is telling residents to be prepared for evacuation. Utah starts to walk down to the beach. He stops a surfer going the other way, and the following exchange occurs:

UTAH. Anybody been out there?

SURFER. No one's been out. No one's going out. You've got to be fucking crazy, man. Death on a stick out there, mate.

The decision to cast Peter Phelps as the surfer, and to give him, arguably, the best line in the whole film, is another one of those truly magical things about "Point Break." Listen, the line could not have gone to a more deserving actor. Peter Phelps (of Phelpsy, as Australians like to call him) was the star of two classic 1980s Australian soap operas, "The Restless Years" and "Sons and Daughters," and movies like "The Lighthorsemen" and "Breaking Loose". His international breakthrough was as a regular on "Baywatch." He wrote about this passage of his career at length in his entertaining memoir, "Sex Without Madonna." More recently, he was the stand-out performer in last year's otherwise crappy "Lantana."

At this year's Logie awards, the annual ceremony celebrating excellence in the Australian television industry, he was cheered to the rafters when he was awarded the Silver Logie as the best male actor of the year, for his role in "Stingers," a cop drama that would be a pretty ordinary show without the sympathetic presence of Phelpsy. Everyone who has ever seen him act for so long as 10 minutes, will agree he comes across as a top bloke. Phelpsy, if you should happen to be reading this, send me an email, and I will buy you a beer.

Apart from Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Hugh Jackman, Heath Leger, Olivia Newton John, Peter Finch, Kimberly Davies, Elle McPherson, Paul Hogan, Geoffrey Rush, Greta Schacchi, Eric Bana, Rachel Griffiths, Frances O'Connor, Noah Taylor, Sam Neill, Naomi Watts, Judy Davis, Yahoo Serious, Peta Wilson, Jack Thompson, Hugo Weaving, Melissa George, the Bananas in Pyjamas, that crocodile hunter dude, Mark "Jacko" Jackson, and maybe one or two others, no Australian actor has been a more glittering presence in the entertainment firmament than Peter ("Phelpsy") Phelps.

The presences of Busey and Phelpsy underline the fact that whatever else it is (a police procedural, a buddy movie, a mediation on Zen and the Art of Crime) "Point Break" is a surfing movie. The surfing sequences in the movie, I would have to say, fall somewhat short of those in one of the surfing movies that came out in its wake, "In God's Hands". Now there is a movie that is divided against itself. The surfing footage is so extraordinary that the film can be safely recommended to anyone remotely interested in tubular experience, while everything else in the movie so woeful that it genuinely comes close to being un-watchable. On the other hand, the waves featured in "Point Break" are definitely impressive compared with those on show in a cliff-hanger episode from the great final season of "Beverly Hills 90210" Dylan announces he is going surfing. Kelly, and Matt Durning, attorney-at-law, hear a report on the radio that massive waves at Point Doom have caused a fatality. They zoom straight to Point Doom, just in time to see an unidentified John Doe getting zipped into a body bag and although they plead with officials, they are not allowed to peek inside to see if it is Dylan. What is clearly noticeable in the background of these shots is that the surf at Point Doom is not exactly the awe-inspiring force of nature the radio report has led us to believe. In fact, it looks as if the poor fatality had somehow managed to get himself drowned in waves which were as flat as a pancake. From the Sandgate-like mudflats of Point Doom, Matt and Kelly head straight for well, I would like to say they head straight for the morgue, but the presence of fresh streaks in Kelly's hair suggests she must have taken some time off from her anguish to go to the hairdressers. Anyway, soon enough, they get to the morgue, where Matt tells the receptionist. "I am a lawyer and I know this is where they take dead people" ie. to the morgue. Those years at law school were not wasted.

Getting back to "Point Break," listen, I could go for as long again as I have already been talking about this movie. I could mention that W Peter Iliff, who wrote the script, also wrote the James van der Beek football drama, "Varsity Blues," which is kind of interesting because if the destinies of the two quarter-back figures in "Varsity Blues" are conflated together, then the movie can be seen as a kind of prequel to "Point Break". Johnny Mox Johnny Utah. I could talk about the fact that lines as central to "Point Break" as Harp's assessment of Utah, ("You're a real blue flame special aren't you, son? Young, dumb and full of cum") and the whole speech by Bodhi about the death of the human spirit I mentioned above, do not appear in the original version of the script, and may, therefore, have been improvised by the actors, or at least worked out from improvisations from the actors. I could talk about the riffing on presidential history that goes on in the bank robbery scenes, or talk about the echoes of "High Noon" and "Dirty Harry" in Utah's final gesture of the movie, when he throws his FBI badge into the Bells Beach surf, or about how, when the film is shown on television, the confrontation on the beach between Utah and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers is always rendered completely ridiculous because a crucial line is omitted, or about the fact that "Point Break" introduced Elizabeth Berkeley to the world of film (although you could easily miss her contribution by blinking at the wrong moment) or about the use of negative space in the composition of the surfing and skydiving sequences or about my thwarted pilgrimage to Bells Beach last month or about well I could talk about this film until the 50 year storm abated and liquid vertical walls ceased to hammer the Australian shore, but I have talked enough. You see, everything moves in cycles. Twice a century or so, Hollywood lets us know just how crappy are the films we ordinarily accept as entertainment. A summer movie comes out of California tearing up the Pacific and the movie is as swell as the heaving ocean that booms and crashes in hallucinatory prisms taking flight, dreamlike, as they reach the shore. "Point Break" is a fifty year movie. If I have convinced one person to see this film, or, even better, to see it with fresh eyes, then my job here has been done, or almost.

von Hangman's thwarted pilgrimage to Bells Beach.

"Heaps of greasy cinders, with here and there something like part of the blackened trunk of a burnt tree, but which had lately been a human creature, formed by the beneficent hand of the Creator."- Charles Dickens. Stop this senseless transformation of lonely, unloved people into heaps of greasy cinders. Give generously to save the people who melt, until all you have left in your pockets is lint. Imagine the suffering of people who burn from within, leaving nothing behind but their teeth or heart. "No one speaks about this, but it's for real."- Keanu Reeves. Thank you for reading this post. It is people like you who make a difference.


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