Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie that’s available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: April Wolfe on Kathyrn Bigelow’s cops-robbers-and-surfers masterpiece Point Break.
Maybe you’ve heard of “the female gaze.” Here’s a quick primer on what it’s not: a leering camera that zeroes in on and hypersexualizes a woman’s body parts. (That would be the male gaze. See: Mulvey, Laura.) So it’d seem only logical that the female gaze would simply be the inverse of that — slobbering visuals of biceps and tight butts, right? Not quite. The male gaze objectifies; the female gaze humanizes. It reinforces the idea that the whole package and not just an errant body part is sexy, no matter what the gender identity is. And nowhere is this concept more evident than in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 “wet Western” Point Break, a film that redefined the action genre with two key elements: intimacy and equality. Laugh all you want. This is the greatest female-gaze action movie ever.
Bigelow reportedly fought for Keanu Reeves in the role of Johnny Utah, an all-American football player turned FBI rookie, who’s drawn to his partner’s theory about a gang of bank-robbing surfers. This was before Speed, before The Matrix, before dead-dog revenge flicks. At that point, Reeves was a vaguely gentle comic actor known for his airhead delivery — to the world, he was merely Theodore “Ted” Logan, the human embodiment of “whoa!” But the 1990s would be the decade of the soft-boy heartthrob, and the then-27-year-old actor’s casting was Exhibit A; only a few years earlier, the role would have gone to a more brutish, lone-wolf figure like Jean-Claude Van Damme, or a self-deprecating hero who uses humor as a defense mechanism a la Bruce Willis. Reeves, on the other hand, possessed a mug so boyish and vulnerable, one could believe a razor had never touched it.
To match Johnny, the director then retooled W. Peter Iliff’s script to toughen up the female protagonist, morphing her from a blond beach babe to a muscled, brash waitress with an androgynous name (Tyler) and physical features, the latter courtesy of actor Lori Petty. Johnny and Tyler are polar-opposite puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly — his feminine edges nudge in nicely to her masculine ones. In nearly every scene they share, they are portrayed by the camera as equals. Take their first meeting out of bathing suits at the café: Both actors stand first with backs straight, roughly the same height. And then Reeves’ Johnny leans down on the counter, Tyler following his lead, so the two meet again at eye level. Bigelow shows us these would-be lovers in close-up, both taking up the same space in the frame, an intense focus on their eyes — with the female gaze, the camera is so intimate that it almost caresses faces.
Even scenes of two FBI agents crowding round a behemoth computer monitor running MS DOS become intimate affairs. The camera (manned, not surprisingly, by Flashdance cinematographer Donald Peterman) captures Johnny and a nameless female agent in yet another close shot, their faces almost touching, a hazy light fading in through slatted blinds as they enter information into a computer. These two seem nearly turned on by their work, because this is the atmosphere and treatment any other director besides Bigelow would give to a sex scene, not a data-collection scene. And this all, obviously, applies to the action as well.
When we first meet Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), he’s essentially making love to the ocean. His body is enveloped in the tube. He arcs his back, leaning out to drag his index finger sensuously along the wave. (There is, arguably, no sport that is more overtly sexual than surfing.) Though this is actually Swayze’s stunt double doing this board performance, it’s believable the heartthrob himself would be capable, after having starred in 1987’s Dirty Dancing and revealing on talk show after talk show that he was trained in ballet. There were and are very few actors who could follow up a famous dance film by playing a man who literally rips out throats (Road House) to then romantically molding clay with Demi Moore (Ghost). But that’s what made Swayze such a special catch for Bigelow. He possessed a certain combination of grace, poise and danger. It made him both an unorthodox casting choice for a bank robber and an ideal as a sex symbol, a quality that also made him and his films the butt of jokes by men made uncomfortable with his earnest sex appeal. (God knows how many rep screenings I’ve attended of this movie where two nervous men burst into laughter at the sight of Swayze’s abs.)
And oh boy, do we get some abs in this film. But never savored in close-up. If Bigelow’s showing a body, she’s nearly always showing the whole body in movement. She and Peterman developed a “pogo-cam” with a long snorkel lens that would allow the team to track actors more easily, which meant someone could take off in full stride, showcasing their physical prowess (the surfers were almost all professional athletes). That way, the camera would catch it all.
Take the first bank robbery scene. Bigelow never hands us an establishing shot of the bank’s interior to get a sense of the layout; instead, there’s a pogo-cam trained on each of the “Ex-Presidents” (the name the robbers give themselves, because they wear rubber masks of four ex-Presidents) that dashes round the space with them for a thrilling set piece. And we haven’t even mentioned the iconic chase sequence that ends with Johnny dispensing his bullets into the sky, which also set an impossibly high bar for other genre movies. Action sequences up until then would often fake the actors running faster than they actually were, an explosion of strength too much for a camera to keep up with (not to mention the hair and makeup folks attempting to keep the actors beautiful). But Bigelow’s tight framing in that snorkel lens brought the audience so close to these men that we could see every muscle straining, every rise and fall of the chest as they ran out of breath. She grounded the action in realism — and sparked the idea that “realness” was sexy. This is probably one of the reasons why she also insisted the actors perform almost all of their own stunts.
Watch Bigelow’s meticulously crafted scenes, and you might not even realize how subversive she’s being. Sometimes she’s packing the frame with visceral, sensual images to unleash adrenaline; sometimes she’s stripping away the conventions we’re used to, in order to focus on character. Think of the sleazy pan-down so pervasive in action films, where our first introduction to a woman is through a close shot on her butt or legs, before the camera travels up her body to her face. The first time we meet Tyler, she’s a tangle of limbs in a wet suit, struggling to pull Johnny to safety from the ocean floor. After being saved, Johnny calls out his name as a late introduction while Tyler’s already paddling away to catch a wave. “Who cares!” she screams back to him. Tyler has the least dialogue and screen time of the three leads, and yet she’s as tightly drawn as any good/bad guy in the film.
What’s beautiful about Point Break is that with Bigelow’s framing and direction, these outlandish daredevil characters become flesh and blood. She proved an action film isn’t just the sum of its guns, but rather the sum of its guts. And it’s pretty damn sexy.
Previously: Eastern Promises