Joe’s $1-a-week cinema #9: Point Break
Point Break. Year: 1991. Spoiler alert: Fear causes hesitation.
The death of Patrick Swayze last week wreaked havoc within the media industry. Being the sensitive and well-honed professionals that we are, we naturally wished to present Swayze in a respectful light and only show examples of his best work. As a result all the montages went like this:
1. Water scene from Dirty Dancing
2. Pottery scene from Ghost
3. Field scene from Dirty Dancing
4. Fade to black.
This kind of blatant editorialising is based on the small-minded orthodoxy that classic films such as Road House (42 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes) and Next of Kin (43 per cent) are somehow unworthy of Swayze’s legacy. In fact while reception was largely negative (the combined US box office was $0), more prescient sections of the media realised that history would judge both movies well.
DVD Town hailed Road House as “your quintessential dumb, macho, guy’s movie, with gratuitous sex and violence at every turn”, while Salt Lake City’s Deseret News gushed: “Patrick Swayze’s new film Next of Kin may be an attempt to atone for his sins in Road House, one of the year’s worst movies, but it proves to be a nominee for the same list.”
This was of course 1989, a heady year of extraordinary political and social upheaval: Milli Vanilli had released their edgy debut album All Or Nothing, Ringo Starr had formed his groundbreaking solo project Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band and then, while the world was still reeling, Ice Cube left NWA. They were turbulent times that in many ways defied meaning, and yet Road House – in which Swayze played a pub bouncer with a doctorate in Eastern Philosophy – and Next of Kin – in which he portrayed a Chicago cop hunting mobsters in the Appalachian mountains – managed to both hold a mirror to society and ask some difficult questions.
It was already the high watermark of a stellar career but it left critics asking: “What next for Swayze?” There were powerful whispers around him. Some said, in hushed tones from the Kodak Theatre to the Hollywood Hills, that he could be the next Brando. Others disagreed: They said he was simply the best.
The following year Swayze answered their call with Ghost, a film in which he challenged conventional notions of race and sexuality by playing a white man playing a black woman playing a white woman. It was a towering performance but his best still lay ahead of him. And then it came.
Perhaps no year was better earmarked for history than 1991. Jesus Jones had both discovered and cornered the market for people who wanted to be goths but were scared to wear make up and Rick Astley had re-established himself as a serious artist with thoughtful hair. Amid this dangerous cocktail of music and philosophy emerged Point Break, a film so deeply spiritual that many have described it simply as a way of life. Seeking the ultimate acting challenge, Swayze pitted himself against the virtuoso talents of Keanu Reeves and there are few critics who would not say that the two were evenly matched. But Swayze, ever reaching for the next level, had an edge: A bleached blonde shaggy hairdo he privately dubbed “Oscar-time”.
Swayze’s character also adopted the moniker “Bodhi” and in yet another masterstroke he had it written into the script that every time his name was mentioned it would be accompanied by the sound of far off windchimes. When not practising transcendental meditation Bodhi was the leader of a gang of surf criminals called the Ex-Presidents. Again, like the rest of Swayze’s work, the film was forensic in its attention to detail and stridently political: It is easy from the relative comfort of 2009 to forget just how rampant surf crime was in the early 1990s – but Swayze won’t let you.
His nemesis in Point Break is of course Reeves’ character Johnny Utah – a common name in 1991 – who is an FBI agent with attitude. This is never more clear than in one of the film’s iconic scenes which features Utah and his partner being dressed down by their supervisor, who yells: “Does either one of you have anything even remotely interesting to tell me?” After a considered pause Johnny Utah responds: “I caught my first tube today sir,” thus immediately establishing his character as both witty and totally extreme.
But while Utah might drive the narrative of the film, it is Swayze’s Bodhi who provides the spiritual force and also takes the audience on a journey through his full emotional spectrum, from excited (“100% pure adrenaline!”) to reflective (“They only live to get radical.”) to analytical (“Goddamn! You are one radical son of a bitch!”).
Bodhi also offers more complex thoughts on the human condition using a technique one might describe as “karmic insight”, a philosophical school popular among teenage dope smokers in which a statement is so thoroughly nonsensical that it must be true. Examples include: “Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true”; “Why be a servant to the law, when you can be its master?”; and “If you want the ultimate, you’ve got to be willing to pay the ultimate price.”
I myself have spent the best part of two decades contemplating these truisms and remain no closer to discovering what they mean, a result that closely mirrors my progress on life generally. But perhaps that is what Swayze is trying to teach us: It doesn’t matter what it means – or even if it has meaning or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or dumb, good or bad, handsome or ugly, talented or incompetent: You still have every chance of making it in life because when push comes to shove most people are pretty much retarded.
Rating: 4m high swells.
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