Y’know what movie is a good guilty pleasure? Top Gun. Basic story, basic action, basic emotion. Its hero is faultless and singularly defined. He succeeds in all the areas a man of his time should. The part is competently acted, the humorous side characters and villains stealing just enough of the show to carry the audience through, past marathon amounts of sweating, to that last scene when the guitar wails. It does not have much lasting value. It seized onto fads with a grip reserved for children and their new toys. But, even now, Top Gun is a fine—if guilt-riddled—ride.
Point Break, a film riding the same wave of California movie action, should not be. Released in 1991, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Keanu Reeves as former Ohio state quarterback turned L.A. jock and F.B.I. super-special agent Johnny Utah, learning to surf to infiltrate a band of supposed surfer bank robbers known as the ex-Presidents, Point Break is as bad as its premise sounds. In fact, it’s worse. Reeves has all the subtlety and control of a herd of stampeding elephants. The cinematography cribs from Miami Vice, with surfer action shots pandering to a second-rate soundtrack. The writing is fantastically bad, such as John C. McGinley’s characteristic line, “You’re young, dumb, and full of cum.” And if Top Gun was the sweatiest movie of the ’80s, its progeny began the next decade as the wettest; sure, it has the surfing, but could it rain a little more?
Yet Point Break is still one of those guilty pleasure movies. In terms of Hollywood history, Bigelow’s film is the perfect document of its time, featuring the renegade-cop-goes-west movie that may have begun with Bullitt and Dirty Harry, but did not really hit a stride until the late-’80s/early-’90s switch to L.A.—Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Speed, and their sequels—with a nod to movies like Reeves’s true masterwork, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, that thought that being young meant being high in California. The basis for both trends was overload, and Point Break, with all of its mind-numbing elements—surfing, bank robbery, skydiving, Keanu Reeves—is the most densely packed. Emphasis on the dense.