Credit: Richard Foreman

Patrick Swayze would seem to be ideally cast as Bodhi, a fearless hippie-rebel surfer who keeps talking about the metaphysics of riding waves. With his compact bronze physique and his long hair dyed into luscious goldilocks, Swayze is the quintessence of Beach Bum. And, as he proved in the amusing B movie Road House, he knows how to use his dancer’s training to play Zen macho. But in Point Break, Swayze’s presence is strangely inconsequential. It’s partly because the script — a real shambles — has Bodhi dropping flower-child howlers like ”Surfing is a state of mind” and ”It’s where you lose yourself and find yourself.” I doubt even Marlon Brando could have redeemed dialogue like that. Swayze, though, digs into the Southern California homilies with such smiley, bright-eyed enthusiasm that he ends up looking downright fey.

Bodhi, who’s meant to be the most free-spirited surfer of them all, may or , may not be involved with the film’s villains — a band of renegade L.A. surfer jocks who celebrate their freedom over the straight world (i.e., anyone who doesn’t surf) by donning outsize rubbery masks of four ex-Presidents and pulling off daring bank heists. (Only in California could armed robbery be viewed as a spiritual activity.) Attempting to infiltrate this jokey, Olympic-team version of the Symbionese Liberation Army is Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), a 25-year-old FBI agent and ex-college football star fresh out of the academy at Quantico, Va. The movie is a gonzo hybrid, at once a violent cop thriller and a solemnly wide-eyed plunge into the surfer subculture.

Director Kathryn Bigelow is one of the new-style action wizards who’ve never quite mastered the nuts and bolts of telling a story. She’s made one hypnotic vampire Western (Near Dark) and one sleek — if ludicrous — feminist cop thriller (Blue Steel). In Point Break (for which her husband, James ”Terminator” Cameron, served as executive producer), she’s trying to serve up a heavy-on-the-testosterone thrill machine. But when the action isn’t pulsing, the movie goes limp. Reeves, always an appealing actor, is too placid to play a driven young federal agent. Bigelow has better luck letting the camera sweep grandly over scenes of fast-paced turmoil. She stages one terrifying backyard fight in which an upended lawnmower becomes a Hitchcockian weapon.

When the surfers climb on their boards, Bigelow lets her camera glide in synch with the surging aqua waves, producing a powerful kinesthetic effect. These sequences feel a bit impersonal, but they rev you up. And that’s what the whole film is trying to do: get the audience high on vicarious physical sensation. Even more spectacular than the surfing scenes are several deliriously extended skydiving sequences, one of which has Swayze and his gung ho buddies, during free-fall, clasping hands in a circle — they’re like a mystic brotherhood of adrenaline — and then coming as close to the ground as possible before opening their chutes. (That’s the true test of dudehood.) At one point, a character even takes a leap without a chute. Bigelow clearly revels in the spectacle of jock bravado. The movie, though, treats its cult of bad-boy supersurfers with such crazed Olympian reverence that it verges on shutting the audience out. Point Break makes those of us who don’t spend our lives searching for the ultimate physical rush feel like second-class citizens. The film turns reckless athletic valor into a new form of aristocracy. C+

Point Break
  • Movie
  • 122 minutes