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‘Point Break’: The enduring appeal of Zen garbage

🕐 4 min read

In 1991, what appeared to be a serious movie was released by 20th Century Fox, a serious movie studio.

The movie, “Point Break,” featured two serious movie stars, Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. It was helmed by serious talent Kathryn Bigelow, who would become the first female director to win an Academy Award (for “The Hurt Locker,” in 2008). It cost serious money — $24 million — and made very serious money, grossing more than $80 million dollars. And now, it’s getting a 100 percent serious $100 million remake, the trailer for which was released Tuesday.

Yet, “Point Break” was transparently ridiculous.

Plot: Reeves is Johnny Utah, a curiously named FBI agent who must go undercover as a surfer to infiltrate a gang of surfer-bankrobbers led by Swayze, aka Bodhi — short for bodhisattva, an enlightened being in Buddhism. Though it is Utah’s mission to apprehend Bodhi, he falls more than a little in love with the man, who robs banks wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, and his pseudo-Zen lifestyle. (Utah’s love affair with a female surfer, played by Lori Petty in a startlingly Reeves-like haircut, seems barely worth mentioning.) These are armed felons with a point to make.

“This was never about money for us,” Bodhi explains in a rousing monologue. “It was about us against the system. That 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 still alive.”

Would that Al Capone had had such Walt Whitman-like aims. “Point Break” is, more or less, Zen garbage: a movie whose antiheroes swat at transcendence though they are really just thugs. Even Swayze bought in.

“Bodhi was a once-in-a-blue-moon character, the bad guy whom you love because you believe what he believes in — until he believes it too far and breaks the law and kills someone,” Swayze, with wife Lisa Niemi, wrote in a memoir published the year he died of cancer. “I loved Bodhi because I identified with his quest for perfection and the ultimate adrenaline high.”

Ah, yes: A quest for perfection — achieved by robbing banks. Though absurd, Bodhi is serious, as is the film. “Point Break” is as violent and well-shot as “Heat,” as convinced of the relevance of its purported themes as “The Hurt Locker.” And this very seriousness makes “Point Break” camp, which is why people love it enough to stage live readings of the script.

“Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails,” Susan Sontag explained in her landmark 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” “Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”

“Point Break,” as Zen garbage, has just this magic combination. Reeves is lovably terrible — his infamous line “I am an F-B-I agent!” delivered so poorly that it earned a “Funny or Die” tribute almost two decades later. Gary Busey, as Reeves’s cranky supervisor, seems imported from an alternate dimension. Spoiler alert: The film ends after Utah jumps out of a plane without a parachute to arrest Bodhi — only to free him so Bodhi can commit a kind of ritual suicide by wave. Then, dramatically, Utah tosses his FBI badge into the surf.

“Point Break,” of course, didn’t invent camp — or even Zen garbage, for that matter. Western culture has long borrowed from the East, offering its peculiar version of Buddhism-lite. See: novels by W. Somerset Maugham and Jack Kerouac; the music of John Coltrane; yoga at the gym.

But for men and women of a certain age who grew up watching Utah endlessly chase Bodhi on cable, “Point Break” is perhaps the epitome of Zen garbage.

“It is silly, yes, but aware of its own silliness — and, better yet, transcends its silliness,” Patrick Bromley wrote at F This Movie in 2013. “The greatness of the movie is that it begins with a ridiculous premise and takes it completely seriously, reflecting on concepts of masculinity and action movie tropes at the same time that it philosophizes about the spirituality of things like surfing, skydiving and violence. And kicking much a_.”

Let’s only hope the remake can hold a lavender- or sandalwood-scented candle to the original.

“With the whole ’90s surfer-grunge vibe now out, the makers are going to have to work hard to capture much of what made the original so singular: its ocean-centric spirituality,” the Guardian wrote last year. “There were characters called War Child and Little Hands, parties around camp fires, and dawn wave-catching sessions.”

Those backing the new “Point Break,” which comes out on Dec. 25, may need the help of a higher power. As Utah told Bodhi: “Vaya con dios.”

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