Friday, July 31, 2009

Getting The Spiritual Side Of It

It just feels like it’s been a lousy summer at the movies. Sure there are a few films I won’t mention that I still haven’t seen and by this point I’m thinking I never will. Sometimes, life’s just too short. Remember when three or four movies would open on a Friday in the summer, not just one giant soulless would-be blockbuster? I miss those days. So if you haven’t seen Kathryn Bigelow's THE HURT LOCKER yet just know that it’s highly recommended. Bigelow is a director whose films are not always as good as she is…as good as NEAR DARK definitely was. I bring this up because it reminds me of a summer movie that Bigelow directed a number of years ago, namely POINT BREAK. I saw it then, but was always kind of resistant to it, mostly because I was thinking of its inherent ridiculousness more than anything. Now I look at it and I not only realize how good we had it with our summer movies in comparison back then, I’m kind of in awe of how some of the action is pulled off. That doesn’t mean that I still don’t think some of it is damn absurd though I’ll freely admit that the tribute to it in HOT FUZZ (“No, I have not ever fired my gun up in the air and gone, ‘Ahhhhh!’”) pretty much justifies its existence as far as I’m concerned. POINT BREAK may in fact be the ultimate example of the best and worst elements of its director but at its best it’s pretty damn awesome. It’s a film where, in the middle of a shootout a cute blonde taking a shower screams in terror then the next time we see her she’s gotten the drop on our hero, fully naked, is kicking his ass and doing a damn good job of it. Hard not to love a movie that features that.

FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) arrives for duty in L.A. and, partnered with longtime agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) begins investigating a series of bank robberies perpetrated by a team that calls themselves the “ex-presidents” due to the masks of former commanders-in-chief they wear in each of their robberies, numbering 27 banks in three years. Circumstantial evidence has led Pappas to believe that the Ex-Presidents are in fact a team of surfers and he recruits Utah to begin surfing (“You’re saying that the FBI is going to pay me to learn to surf?”) in order to make his way into that culture and possibly locate the culprits. After convincing surfer girl Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) to teach him the basics of the sport he soon is introduced to her group of friends led by the charismatic Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Utah soon finds himself drawn to this lifestyle they lead particularly their approach to the art of surfing but, after focusing on another gang who turn out to be innocent, Utah begins to suspect that the ones he’s looking for are closer than he realizes.

The screenplay by W. Peter Iliff (story by Iliff & Rick King) is frankly absurd in its plausibility but strangely compelling in how it commits to its themes, something you feel the director drawn to from the very first frame. Kathryn Bigelow’s films seem to all be about taking it to the limit in life and through that trial by fire you discover who you really are. Each of them varies somewhat in their effectiveness but in POINT BREAK you really do feel that surge of adrenaline and at its very best it’s damn near impossible to not get sucked up in that. It’s as if in ignoring the ridiculousness of the basic concept and plot points, Bigelow takes a bungee jump off a high bridge in the hopes that it’ll all come together and in that total conviction to what she shoots it somehow does. The entire film is put together in immaculate fashion, with the director displaying a remarkable eye for framing and the relentless pacing of the action scenes is at times remarkable (For the record: Donald Peterman was the DP and Howard Smith was the editor. They deserve a huge amount of credit as well). The surfing scenes, no matter how indebted they are to John Milius’s underrated BIG WEDNESDAY are absolutely beautiful and, like the Milius film, actually sell me on how addictive this lifestyle can be, if only for a few minutes.

The justly famous foot chase is about as good an example of this sort of thing ever seen, almost making me forget about wondering how someone can pull off this sort of thing with a giant mask on their head and I just marvel at how this is shot and put together…why aren’t there action movies made today that are this exhilarating in their total clarity? But in thinking about this it does lead me to thinking about one of the key flaws though…the scripts Bigelow works off of rarely feel like they don’t have a few holes that could be patched up and it feels like a flaw in her as a director that she doesn’t have that done…so as a result the end of the foot chase where Keanu doesn’t shoot Swayze “because he loves him so much” as HOT FUZZ put it, just doesn’t play for me. The sensation is there in the moment but I don’t buy it, not on a plot level of Johnny Utah getting sucked into this world and not on a homoerotic level either. The film could have gotten there…but in its quest for ultimate sensation it doesn’t go the distance in making me buy some of the plot and it feels like one of Bigelow’s great flaws in that she doesn’t seem able or willing to push her own story to its limit, instead focusing on that adrenaline rush.

I could believe that there are plenty of people who have never been bothered by any of my own little problems with it—I mean, everybody seems to remember this movie-- but there are still issues both big and small that linger throughout. This includes basic plausibility in character interactions to the little things that have bugged me for years from the pitch black nighttime scene atop Mulholland Drive that is apparently happening at 7:30 in the middle of the summer to the legendary order of two meatball subs, two lemonades and tuna on wheat that is not only ready in about ten seconds flat but comes to a grand total of $7.84. I don’t think was possible even back in 1991 and there are several threads on the film’s imdb page devoted to this conundrum. These little things add up in the end but it doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy it in all its ludicrousness including the sky-diving stuff with star Swayze doing it himself, one of the very last points in film history where this could have happened and been genuinely impressive, since it wasn’t possible yet to do this digitally.

In all of this pure sensation and enjoyment I still don’t buy certain plot points late in the game. In particular, the end involves a gesture that I didn’t buy back then and I don’t buy now, mainly because the character on the receiving is pretty much an asshole and undeserving of any magnanimousness. My own take on this, I know. Not that the alternative would have been much of an ending either and in a sense the final beat that comes out of this actually helps in making it an ideal movie for the summer. Learn your lesson, move on. That’s life. Next. POINT BREAK is extremely well made and entirely absurd. I’ve watched it twice over the past few weeks and I could very easily watch it again without getting bored so that right there has to say something.

In the middle of all this is a group of actors who deliver not necessarily realistic performances but each in their own way fit into this world in their own way. Everything that they do that they get derided for here seems absolutely correct. This goes for the way-out line readings and facial expressions provided by both Reeves (“Zero distortion, sir.”) and Swayze (all good wishes go out to him at this time )as well as the unfortunately one-note FBI jerk played by John C. McGinley who, in spite of a strong first scene, is usually is better than this. I’ve gotten used to these things by now. I don’t think I would have it any other way. Petty, who dropped off the star radar faster than anyone expected (I guess after TANK GIRL), is particularly good as Tyler and through her own nimble ferocity makes the role possibly more than it was on the page. Busey, whose casting results in much more than just a reference to BIG WEDNESDAY, is off in his own world much of the time—how has this character lasted twenty years in the FBI?—and for all I know is making up his own dialogue in every scene (“They dump the vehicle and they vanish. Like a virgin on prom night.”) but he delivers an amazing energy that enjoyably runs counter to everyone else onscreen. In a brief unbilled role as a pissed off DEA Agent Tom Seizmore (later one of the leads of Bigelow’s STRANGE DAYS) kicks all kinds of ass. With music by Mark Isham, the film is not just well-scored but intelligently scored, with the music at times held back until it’s absolutely necessary, particularly during the great foot chase.

It’s a weird thing because I get the feeling that POINT BREAK might be considered some kind of so-bad-it’s-good movie by people out there. Someone recently told me that she took part in a drinking game while watching it and got extremely plastered. I don’t know what this game consisted of but, considering the movie, the possibilities seem limitless. That said, some of it is so phenomenal in how it’s put together that it seems a little wrong and yet there’s just too much in there that I just don’t buy into. Maybe that’s just because I’ve never learned to surf so I can’t quite buy into a lot of the nonsense that Bodhi espouses but, seriously, a bank robber who proclaims, “This was never about the money, this was about us against the system. That system that kills the human spirit. We stand for something. We are here to show those guys that are inching their way on the freeways in their metal coffins that the human sprit is still alive,” is still just a bank robber. I don’t know if the film agrees with me but maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve always been a little resistant to it, no matter how much skill and love of the pure rush that Kathryn Bigelow brings to it (and up until now I’ve completely avoided becoming the 5,000th person to mention that she’s also really hot, I don’t care if she is 57. A fantastic action director who’s also gorgeous doesn’t come along every day so it warrants being pointed out). The best of the film is better than the whole film and the best that Kathryn Bigelow brings to it is better than just about anything else we get in action films these days. And that definitely counts for something. I freely admit that POINT BREAK is a no holds barred, adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride and will give it huge amounts of praise for that alone but, as Sergeant Nicholas Angel once told us, there’s no way you could perpetrate that amount of carnage and mayhem and not incur a considerable amount of paperwork. Still, as long as it’s summer, I guess you can forget about that for the time being.


Joe Valdez said...

I can't disagree with anything you wrote here, Peter, other than possibly omitting that James Cameron did an uncredited polish of the script.

In 100 years, people will think Patrick Swayze was one of the biggest movie stars of the 20th century. Along with Red Dawn and Roadhouse, Point Break just refuses to die, no matter how ridiculous it is. Maybe because of its ridiculousness.

I too celebrate the return of Kathryn Bigelow with Hurt Locker and her taut, mostly sophisticated style. She really should have had Paul Greengass' career before there was a Paul Greengrass or the Bourne pictures. Hopefully, we won't have to wait 14 years for more good work.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

ROADHOUSE is also absurd, but I give this one the edge based on pure quality. Still, that one does have the Joel Silver sheen to it. I should write about it sometime.

You're absolutely right in saying that Bigelow should have had the Paul Greengrass career. I wish I'd thought of that. It would be interesting to see a list of films that she either turned down or was in the running for. Maybe the first BOURNE sequel would have been one of them. She can be so damn good and I also hope the wait for the next one isn't so long.

Torbin said...

As a side anecdote I was recently told of a stage production that is travelling around that replicates Point Break. The genius twist? A member of the audience is picked at random to play Keanu. I'm not even sure they hand them a script. Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

I remember going to the cinema to see STRANGE DAYS. Back then I only knew Bigelow from her marriage to James Cameron and NEAR DARK (which I hadn't seen by then).

STRANGE DAYS blew me away! What a fantastic film. From then on I kept my eyes open for her work. (Alas, not too many films in all those years.)

K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER is also a very underappreciated film by her.


Anonymous said...

I've only seen this once & that was in its original theatrical run. I didn't like it then & can't bring myself to watch it again despite all its cult acclaim (especially from the brilliant "Hot Fuzz"). I don't want to give anything away, but the scene between Keanu & Swayze late in the film is so incomprehensible & ultimately unforgivable that I become humorless about the entire enterprise. Maybe I should give it another look as Bigelow has made (at least) two bona fide classics in "Near Dark" & "The Hurt Locker" (& "Strange Days" comes close).

- Bob

le0pard13 said...

I'm one who gets frustrated with Point Break, but will watch it to the end. If it's anything, it's entertaining as hell (problems with the plot, not excepted). But, after reading some of author Don Winslow recent books this year, the theme and motivation of the surfers in the film now fits better with me.

The Hurt Locker was one of the best things I've seen this year--but its use of the shaky cam technique can be murder to us susceptible to motion sickness. Even with that, I still recommend it. And if there's any justice in the world, and the studio continues the series, Bigelow should direct the next Bourne installament. She is one of the best action director's we've got.

Another sterling breakdown of a film, Mr. Peel. Thanks.

Unknown said...

"POINT BREAK is extremely well made and entirely absurd. I’ve watched it twice over the past few weeks and I could very easily watch it again without getting bored so that right there has to say something."

Amen, my brother! I just think you nailed the appeal of this film. It has been popping up cable quite a bit this summer and whenever I happen to catch it being on, no matter at what point in the film, I find myself watching the rest of it. Or, popping in the DVD and just watching it all the way from the beginning. Plus, the film really needs to be seen in its original aspect ratio.

It really is a guilty pleasure of sorts but is just so damn fun, from Gary Busey's loose cannon cop and how well he bounces off Reeves' young cop/straight man. It's a role where his stiffness and blank, reactive slate style actually works.

As you point, Bigelow's direction and the work of her camera crew is incredible. She has made some truly fantastically choreographed action sequences (I'm thinking of the one that opens STRANGE DAYS, which takes the famous foot chase in POINT BREAK and manages to top it), but you're right about the frustrating aspects of her films. She is a fantastic director but seems to always pick seriously flawed scripts. STRANGE DAYS is a brilliant film right up until the last third where it loses its damn mind. But I still love it.

Emily Blake said...

Dude, you're missing.

Bodie loved the action so much he actually surfed himself to death. It was never about the money, man. It was about the waves. Respect the waves.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I don't know if I have much to add to all this. Some of POINT BREAK is amazing. But at other points all I can do is just sit there and go, "What the hell?" Thanks to all for the terrific comments.

Emily, I get that part of it. I just don't buy it.