There are a lot of reasons Point Break remains, after 30 years, incredibly watchable and a touchstone in pop culture. A lot of it is to do with the eternal appeal of Keanu Reeves, of peak Patrick Swayze, of the great action scenes and dumb-fun plot. Some of it might be the barely latent homoeroticism—a key feature of fellow touchstone film Top Gun—and the place Point Break occupies on many peoples’ timeline of self-discovery. But one of the other reasons Point Break is so enduring, and so unrepeatable, as the 2015 remake proved, is that it is never quite the film you expect. In some ways, it’s dumber than can be believed, in others, it’s smarter than it has any right to be, and for a film about a couple of alpha males locked in a deadly battle of wills, it’s a surprisingly feminine film. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s films are marked by a combination of muscular action and fragile emotionality, and in Point Break she prizes apart the twisted dynamics of toxic masculinity. John C. McGinley, who plays Special Agent Harp in the film, understands this appeal:
Point Break’s feminine perspective begins with the casting of its two leads, Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves (the film was cast by Sharon Bialy and Richard Pagano). At the time, Swayze was best known for romantic films like Dirty Dancing and Ghost, even though he had action films like Road House and Red Dawn under his belt. Swayze, with his wiry dancer’s physique, didn’t fit the 1980s action star mold of Arnold and Sly, but he was still too fit to pass as a Bruce Willis-esque everyman, so he found himself relegated to the B-tier action movies and A-list romantic dramas. Point Break plucked him fresh off of Ghost, which solidified his swoony screen presence. Keanu, meanwhile, was best known for teen roles in films like River’s Edge, Parenthood, and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. At the start of the 1990s, these are not the men you expect to headline a Hollywood action film.
And yet, it is precisely because they don’t fit the mold that Point Break works. Sex symbol Swayze perfectly captures the cobra’s charm of a cult leader as Bodhi, and fresh-faced Keanu is a perfect ingenue as Johnny Utah. Together, they have incredible chemistry which, yes, is sexual. It’s a little bit the same generic “Greeks in the arena” appeal of the Top Gun volleyball scene, which plays into an intrinsic human pleasure in seeing physically perfect specimens engage in activity together. But Point Break’s answer to the volleyball scene is the beach football scene, in which Johnny plays ball with Bodhi and his friends, is more explicitly violent and illicitly dangerous than the display in Top Gun. Johnny is undercover, so we understand the precariousness of his situation and the risk of discovery, which underpins every interaction with Bodhi. But there is also a blatant masculine challenge playing out, as Johnny refuses to be bested by the older Bodhi.
Bodhi and Johnny trade ferocious tackles, and when Johnny knocks Bodhi into the surf after a relentless chase—foreshadowing events to come—the rock music drops off the soundtrack and Mark Isham’s score kicks in with an ominous note. Everyone else is playing for fun, but Johnny and Bodhi are already playing for stakes. Far from the oiled torsos and cinematic posing of the Top Gun volleyball scene, the Point Break football scene is a dog fight, and while Johnny tackles Bodhi, there is no sense of victory, only increasing danger. That live-wire edge infuses all their interactions, and it is made clear that Bodhi and Johnny cannot coexist. They’re both alphas, and alphas can’t share territory. Their relationship is predicated on friendly rivalry and the notion that Bodhi is graciously tolerating Johnny’s presence, sharing surfing tips, wisdom, and even women, intimating that Johnny is only with Tyler (Lori Petty) because of Bodhi’s magnanimity.
It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe in which the latent homoeroticism between Bodhi and Johnny is made explicit and they are simply lovers, but the socio-politics of late 20th century mainstream Hollywood keep Point Break in the celluloid closet. However, Bigelow and her team seem aware of the subtext because Point Break plays very much like a star-crossed romance between Johnny and Bodhi. There is an older, more experienced mentor initiating a wide-eyed ingenue into a closed society as outside forces threaten to break them apart. It’s Romeo & Juliet with bank robberies, or The Story of O with surfing. And Johnny and Bodhi hit many of the beats of a romance, from the meet cute to the misunderstanding to the tragic finale. It’s essentially an enemies to lovers to enemies arc, except Point Break doesn’t make the sexual component of their relationship real. Instead, for the purposes of maintaining heteronormativity, there is Tyler, a woman both men have been with and thus stands in for the sex the men aren’t having together.
Bigelow uses the romantic subtext between Johnny and Bodhi to prod at toxic masculinity. People die because these two men cannot relate on any level but the competitive. They meet in the midst of an altercation, their rivalry is cemented in a game they’re both taking a little too seriously, and then matters escalate from there. Though they form an attachment, it isn’t healthy, because they have no healthy way to express their feelings – and form a real bond. They can’t bare their souls because they’re both hiding critical information from the other, and they can’t have sex because our society doesn’t allow for casual sex between men who identify as straight. With no other outlet for their roiling feelings, compounded as they are by mutual lies and betrayals, the only way Johnny and Bodhi can relate is through violence. As Johnny and Bodhi become more frustrated with one another—Johnny because Bodhi is a criminal, Bodhi because Johnny clings to rigid determinism—the violence in Point Break steadily increases.
Given no positive emotional outlet or healthy physical expression of affection, Johnny and Bodhi tear each other part. Only one dies, but it is clear in the end that Johnny will not walk away unscathed. What is striking is the inevitability of it all. From their first meeting, it is obvious these men are going to consume one another. They’re on opposite sides of the law, sure, but they like each other despite that. But Johnny can’t bring himself to arrest Bodhi, even after he’s killed someone, just as Bodhi can’t bring himself to cede territory to Johnny, even if it would mean walking away clean. Neither can give in: alpha posturing demands total dominance even at the cost of self-destruction. There is a sadness in Point Break we often see in great romantic dramas, of knowing the lovers are doomed no matter what, but here it isn’t family or class or war or any of the usual suspects keeping them apart. There is only heteronormativity and masculine posturing dictating their doom. Point Break could easily have been an empty spectacle about nothing but gun fights and explosions, but Kathryn Bigelow turns it into an examination of the inevitable death spiral of toxic masculinity.