Kathryn Bigelow is the sort of director who’s been defying perceived gender limitations her entire career. The biggest of those accomplishments came when she became the first woman in history to win the Oscar for Best Director. Her Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker, was a tense look at military bomb defusers that created more movie chills than 99% of the horror films that get released in any given year. And it showcased a strong performance from Jeremy Renner that essentially made his career and catapulted him toward being one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
Before she ever won her Oscar, however, she was already defying expectations by shattering the myth that a woman couldn’t direct kick-ass action movies. Her 1991 film Point Break is probably one of the most manly movies ever made. It’s about extreme sports-loving adrenaline junky bank robbers, and it stars Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze as the cops and robbers. But, despite the fact that Point Break has a cult audience, it’s viewed by most as being a guilty pleasure, a relic of the early ’90s when cheesy action movies ruled the day. Maybe it’s because Keanu is milking his dense, surfer persona for all it’s worth, or because the movie is so unapologetically an action film, but people just don’t take Point Break seriously these days. And that sucks, because it’s really well-made.
What do they have in common?
In addition to being movies about tough guys doing dangerous things, both were directed by Kathryn Bigelow. But I guess we already covered that, didn’t we?
Why is The Hurt Locker overrated?
I’ll give The Hurt Locker its due, it’s got some of the best bomb diffusing scenes in movie history. But that’s about the only place where it doesn’t underwhelm. The first big strike against the film is that the camera work is so annoying. This is one of those movies that’s trying for a faux documentary look, where everything you’re watching is supposed to play as gritty and real. The camera jerks to and fro, jostling along with its operator, and then zooms in on the action suddenly and abruptly. Instead of adding an immediacy and an urgency, which must be the intended effect, the real effect is that all of the attention gets put on what the camera is doing instead of on the performances and story.
Which, in this case, is kind of a blessing in disguise. The dialogue in The Hurt Locker is so meathead stupid and the characters so crotch-punchingly unlikable that ignoring what they say isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The intended effect of this dialogue, once again, must be realism. We’re supposed to be getting a look at the way real soldiers must really behave when they’re juiced up and in a combat situation. But, if I was a soldier, I would be offended at the grunting, hollering, caveman interpretation of how these guys behave on their off time. Jeremy Renner’s character is a real ass. Maybe he would have worked well as a wildcard side character if we were seeing the film through someone else’s more reasonable eyes, but this punch trading idiot is our protagonist.
There are pacing problems aplenty as well. The Hurt Locker’s story is fairly simple, and taking over two hours to tell it feels excessive. The length certainly isn’t helped by the fact that the film’s high points, namely the best bomb defusing scenes, come in its first half, either. So much time feels wasted in this movie’s boring back-end, which consists mostly of scenes where the characters wander around Iraq, searching for God knows what, or sitting around their quarters, pointedly talking about their lives. Streamline this story down to just the best bomb scenarios, with more subtle character stuff getting built up during the action, and it would have been a lot better off.
Why is Point Break underpraised?
While the camera work in The Hurt Locker can become distracting, in Point Break its generally jaw-dropping. As a matter of fact, this movie is a technical marvel from top to bottom. The shots Bigelow and her crew are able to get during the surfing and skydiving scenes are astounding. And even when something big isn’t going down, still the production remains gorgeous to look at due to all of the pleasant, natural light photography. When something big is happening, however, that’s when Point Break really soars. The foot chase scene where Reeves chases Swayze through back alleys, back yards, over fences, and through strangers’ houses is maybe the most impressive foot chase ever filmed. They cover so much ground and are in and out of so many different nooks and crannies, but everything is always clear, you always know where they are in relation to each other, and the fast paced editing never has to slow down so you can catch up. It really cooks, and that had to be a result of meticulous planning.
Point Break is a big, dumb action movie where Reeves and Swayze are playing man-pretty surfer burnouts – that’s true. But it doesn’t mean the acting here is sub par. Sure, Reeves gives a couple of questionable line readings, but this role is so suited to his Keanuness that it feels organic. And the people supporting him are largely great. Swayze really sells the modern cult leader character, a pre-completely insane Gary Busey is likable as hell as Reeves’s grizzled partner (Utah, get me two!), and the supporting cast goes deep. Tom Sizemore shows up for about two seconds playing an unhinged DEA agent, John C. McGinley does his asshole schtick as a rival FBI agent, Anthony Kiedis shoots himself in the foot and gives us a great movie scream, and naked chick who kicks Reeves’s ass while naked. Talk about commitment.
There’s no pacing problems here either. You get a few minutes into the movie and Reeves’s Johnny Utah has already joined the agency, gotten chewed out by his superior, been introduced to his haggard partner…and then a bank robbery happens. There isn’t a single second of Point Break’s two hour run time where something awesome isn’t happening, and the time flies by. Even the film’s denouement – which takes place after a climactic scenario where the hero jumps out of a plane without a parachute – doesn’t drag. It’s maybe the most satisfyingly bromantic scene ever filmed, and it gave us quotable gems like, “You’ve. Got. To. Go. Down. It’s gotta be that way!”, and “You know I can’t handle a cage, man!” For that, and for so much more, we will forever be in Point Break’s debt.
Evening the odds.
The one big thing that The Hurt Locker undeniably has going for it is how effective its bomb-defusing scenes are at getting you on the edge of your seat and making you sweat. But Point Break is a movie that has its own harrowing moments as well. I’ll put its first skydiving scene up there against anything else when it comes to tension. The other shoe has dropped on the fact that Johnny Utah is an undercover cop casing his new buddies. They’re taking him up in a plane, and you don’t know if their intention is to kill him or what. Even after he jumps, you still don’t know if his chute is going to open. And then the whole nail-biting situation ends up leading to a shared spiritual moment. Who could have seen that coming? Point Break is a thinker, and it’s still Kathryn Bigelow’s best movie.