The nineties completely transformed Keanu Reeves into a movie star and made him into one the biggest action heroes on the planet. The triple-whammy of Point Break (91), Speed (94) and The Matrix (99) changed Reeves from an amiable goofy comedian in the likes of Parenthood, I Love You to Death and of course, Bill and Ted into a hugely bankable star. Point Break and Speed are both quintessential LA movies, encompassing surfing, bank robberies, the LAPD and of course; traffic. Reeves plays an FBI agent in the former and an LAPD SWAT officer in the latter, with his undercover role as a surfer in Point Break being the Keanuiest version of himself, of course.
Point Break is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and features some stunning action scenes, including surfing, skydiving and an incredible footchase through the homes and gardens of an LA neighbourhood. The bank robbery and chase sequences use handheld cameras, making them dynamic and full of momentum. The gang of bank robbers use rubber masks depicting ex-Presidents, adding to the distinctive feel of this action movie. Patrick Swayze gives an indelible performance as Bodhi – leader of the surfer gang that Reeves’ Johnny Utah (an all-time great action hero name) infiltrates. Bodhi and Utah’s bromance drives the film and leads to the iconic moment where Johnny shoots his gun in the air and goes “argh.” Point Break has been hugely influential on the action genre and is lovingly referenced in Hot Fuzz and Lovesick, just to name a few.
Speed is directed by Jan de Bont and is the zenith of a simple, high-concept action film. It is also extremely well-structured and taut, propelling the audience forward throughout, like an unstoppable juggernaut. It has a finely-tuned three-act structure: a prologue (the elevator sequence), the main event (“there’s a bomb on a bus”) and an epilogue (the subway train). Since moving to LA from the UK, I have become keenly aware of the irony of setting an LA film on no less than two forms of public transport, plus riding the entire premise on a bus being able to stay above 50 miles an hour in rush hour traffic. Sandra Bullock (in what was most people’s first encounter with the star) plays the extremely endearing Annie, who ends up having to drive the bus.
In both Point Break and Speed, the young Reeves is buddy-copped with a older, grizzly, disgruntled (but with a secret heart-of-gold) partner. In Speed, it is Jeff Daniels’ Harry and in Point Break, it’s Gary Busey’s Pappas, both of whom have to meet tragic ends in order to give Reeves his final-act motivation. The villain in Speed is played with scenery-chewing aplomb by Dennis Hopper and there is a motley collection of bus passengers including wide-eyed tourist Alan Ruck (best-known for playing Cameron Fry in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). In Point Break, Lori Petty plays love interest Tyler, John C McGinley plays the hard-ass police captain, James Le Gros plays one of Bodhi’s gang (who can do a great Nixon impression) and Anthony Kedis plays a member of an entirely different criminal-surfer gang who Johnny mistakes for the bank robbers.
The dialogue in both films is top-notch and phenomenally quote-worthy. From Dennis Hopper (in Speed) telling Reeves that; “poor people are crazy. I’m eccentric” to McGingley’s captain (in Point Break) telling Reeves he’s “young, dumb and full of cum.” A personal favourite line from Point Break is from when Johnny Utah gets into a skirmish on the beach with Anthony Kedis’ gang, Bodhi intervenes and utters the immortal threat; “back off War Child. Seriously.” Bodhi’s endless hippy musings on “being one with the water” etc could fill a whole article in themselves, as could the earnestness of the Bodhi-Utah bromance; “you want me so bad it’s like acid in your mouth.” It should also be noted that Johnny Utah has his big breakthrough of realising that *gasp* Bodhi’s surfer gang are the Ex-Presidents (!) when he recognises the bare ass of one of the surfers.
In Speed, lots of tension is created from the bus trying to negotiate the freeway and then city traffic filled with pedestrians. The most famous moment is the when they come to a piece of unfinished freeway, so there’s a huge gap in the road that has to be jumped by the bus. There’s another butt-clencher where Reeves’ Jack tries to examine the bomb while on a makeshift creeper under the bus, WHILE IT’S STILL GOING AT OVER 50 MPH. Dennis Hopper’s villain continually messes with Jack and they try to play him at his own game by looping the CCTV footage he is recording of the bus. Both Speed and Point Break serve to remind us that villain motivations were somewhat more prosaic in the 90s. The Ex-Presidents just want to fund their summer surfing season and Hopper is disgruntled about his cop’s pension. Nowadays, environmental and over-population concerns seem more de rigueur in the villain community.
The chemistry between Reeves and Bullock (in Speed) is incredibly good and it was gut-wrenching to discover recently that they both apparently had unspoken crushes on the other at the time. The chemistry between Reeves and Petty (in Point Break) is massively overshadowed by the intense heat of the Reeves-Swayze bromance. Looking back on the two, Speed is probably more beautifully simple than you remember and Point Break is more complexly layered. Bigelow is one of the most accomplished genre directors around – excelling at horror (Near Dark), sci-fi (Strange Days) and more recently, the modern war drama (Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty). What she achieves in Point Break is mind-boggling – the skydiving sequences are especially breath-taking and the bank robbery followed by the car/foot chases are also stunningly orchestrated (and a huge influence on Wright’s Baby Driver, among other films). She also juggles a large cast, with many threads – it’s a surfer film, a crime film, a buddy-cop movie, a romance, has huge action set-pieces – balancing all of this is a major achievement. What Speed pulls off is equally impressive in its stream-lined coherence and clarity. Making something this high-concept sustain tension for nearly two hours is a sophisticated feat and the structure of Graham Yost’s screenplay is to be thanked for this.
Nineties Keanu is a gift for many reasons (just his three 1991 films alone are among the best of his career) and with him having something of a resurgence in popularity this year (with Duke Caboom, John Wick 3 and playing himself in Always Be My Maybe) now is the perfect time to revisit the action films that started it all off for him. Some films don’t live up to your memories when you look back, they don’t age well and can be disappointing. Speed and Point Break are even better than you remember – trust me.
Side-note: if you enjoy the surf sequences in Point Break, you might also like the skater/surfer documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys (Stacy Peralta, 2001) and its narrative adaptation Lords of Dogtown (Catherine Hardwicke, 2005).
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