Keanu Reeves' big night inPoint Break soars as action video par excellence.
by Ian Fryer
Although it truly deserves to be seen in all its 35mm, Dolbyised glory at your local multiplex, Point Break still delivers the goods as the SECOND best action flick of the last twelve months, with T.2 taking the number one slot. It made the name of Keanu Reeves, previously best known as one half of Bill and Ted, as both a mainstream leading man and, in terms of the kind of films Impact covers, as a credible action star.
It would be hard to imagine an introductory high concept vehicle that gave its star MORE to do in the way of physical action. In the course of Point Break, Reeves, as F.B.I special agent Johnny Utah, gets to surf, sky-dive, fist-fight, indulge in gunplay AND participate in the most exhilarating footrace ever captured on film. Whether or not he chooses to pursue a career within the action genre is up to him. The fact is that, with Point Break, Keanu Reeves proves beyond doubt that that's one of the options open to him.
It's interesting to note that Reeves has been on the movie scene for some time, but it was not until Point Break that he truly became a member of the Hunk-of-the-Month club. Watching his lean, tanned physique glide across the screen, it's hard to believe that this is the same actor who played a stressed-out geek in the cult hit River's Edge, nor that he first came to fame, alongside fellow airhead Alex Winter, in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and its sequel. Other appearances, in the comedy Love You to Death and the drama My Own Private Idaho, barely impacted on the nation's consciousness. It was Point Break that, singlehandedly, established Keanu as a classic leading man.
Possibly Reeves' ACTING performance in the film has been underrated. He is, after all, the character who reacts to the events around him, rather than the one that initiates action. The more bravura performances are turned in by more established action stars in co-starring roles. Patrick Swayze, who proved his mettle in the genre in Next of Kin and Roadhouse, impresses as the Zenned-out surf guru Bodhi, and Gary Busey, Mr. Jericho of Lethal Weapon fame, splendidly irascible as Utah's over-the-hill partner. However, it is through Reeves' eyes that the audience sees the film. They learn to surf with him. They take their first skydive alongside him. They participate in the already legendary steadicam chase from his point of view. If a cypher had played the Johnny Utah role, a Matt Dillon or a Steve Guttenberg, then the action itself, rather than the character's reaction to it, would have eclipsed the project. Reeves brings precisely the right balance of innocence and world-wisdom to the part. Watch his eyes in the final sequence, in which Utah confronts his longtime foe on a stormy Australian beachhead. We know that many months and miles have passed since the scene that precedes it, however, the audience never gets to see those events, other than as a reflection in Reeves' newly world-weary expression. As is usually the case, mainstream reviewers by-passed a critical appreciation of the ACTING in Point Break, on order to focus on the slam-bang action sequences.
As I mentioned earlier, few action stars have been given such a range of different physical endeavors to perform in their debut vehicles. Obviously, stunt doubles had to be used for some of the surfing and sky-diving sequences, but both Reeves and co-star Patrick Swayze proved themselves gung ho in offering to perform as much of their own action as possible. Reeves had got into the best shape of his life for the feature, and director Kathryn Bigelow, who had previously helmed the excellent Near Dark and the not-so-excellent Blue Steel, had to restrain him from risking life and limb too often. The surf sequences employed professional board-riders for the wide-angle shots, with the principals contributing close-ups and some of the simpler movements. The film features one impressive martial arts-style fight sequence, in which Bodhi and Utah are forced to take on a gang of Surf Nazis. Swayze has already had quite a bit of experience with fight sequences, having played martial arts heroes in Steel Dawn and Roadhouse. For Reeves, this was a first, and he acquits himself well in a short, sharp combat scene that sees him matching fists and feet with Cyborg co-star Vincent Klyn. Clearly, the stand-out freefall skydiving sequence was performed by stuntmen. To get the necessary close-ups, Reeves and Swayze were suspended on wires in front of huge fans so as to give an accurate impression of wind resistance. The sequence is cut together so well, and the performances so intense, that you'd never know. Action films ALWAYS use doubles, at some point, to protect their leading men. What is important is that the actors convey a sense of physicality in such a way that the audience BELIEVES that the character can perform these feats. For example, no one really believed that Roger Moore was really doing all those Bond-style stunts, because not only is he arthritic, but he played the character that way as well! Sean Connery, on the other hand, was quite an athletic in his day, and so audiences accept that his characters can pull off physical feats in films like Never Say Never Again and the Highlander Films. Both Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves manage to convey that physicality perfectly in Point Break, and the audience WANTS to believe that it's really them all the time.
A major hit at both the theatrical and video box offices, Point Break established both Reeves and Bigelow as mainstream talents. Bigelow is certain to make further features in the same vein. Whether Keanu will choose so to do is less certain.
His follow-up release, My Own Private Idaho, in which he stars opposite River Phoenix as a gay hustler, is hardly an ideal vehicle for a potential action star! His next film, Freakz (a.k.a Very Special People), re-unites him with Bill and Ted cohort Alex Winter, in a project both written and directed by the multi-talented Alex. Will Reeves pursue straight acting roles, leaving Point Break his sole excursion into high concept, or will he, like Mel Gibson, move back and forth between genres? Time will tell. One thing is certain: As long as Keanu Reeves' lethal looks light up the screen, the hearts of fair ladies will be aflutter...