In “Point Break” Kathryn Bigelow & Patrick Swayze created a great villain

Point Break Keanu Reeves & Patrick Swayze in Point Break (20th Century Forever)

Swayze’s thrill-seeking bank-robber is a magnetic blast to hang out with. And he’s a blinkered, reckless fool who does a massive amount of harm.

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Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. In November we’re celebrating Kathryn Bigelow, the first female winner of a Best Director Academy Award, and her fascinating journey from indie genre films to blockbuster political dramas. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 FBI Agents v. Bank Robbers/Extreme Sports actioner, is an awesome movie. Its set pieces are to the last clear, carefully crafted and memorable – from the dog-tossing foot chase that sets the last act in motion to the euphoric group sky dive whose conclusion marks picture’s point of no return. Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah is a compelling hero. To quote Angelica Jade Bastien’s excellent writing on Reeves, Utah is “bodaciously supple and yearning.” He’s a good-hearted searcher who discovers his truth amidst his infiltration of the L.A. surf scene. And in Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, Johnny Utah has a nemesis par excellence. Working in concert, Swayze and Bigelow build one of western action cinema’s finest villains.

Lori Petty’s Tyler describes Bodhi to Johnny as the “modern savage” and the “ultimate searcher.” He’s someone who’s looked at the world and found it thoroughly wanting. What good is life if it crushes all the joy out of you? What meaning is there in a life without passion? Disgusted by the emptiness he sees in the world, Bodhi rebels. He and his merry men devote themselves wholly to the pursuit of happiness via death-defying adventures.

To quote another classic 90s crime movie, for Bodhi “the action is the juice.” Bodhi surfs. He skydives. He’s a damn good football player in a pinch. And, as the jovial leader of the Ex-Presidents gang, he robs banks.

On its own, committing crimes doesn’t necessarily make Bodhi a villain. No, Bodhi’s villainy is born from his destructive obsession with his ideals and his total inability to take a loss. Chasing thrills isn’t hollow excitement for Bodhi. When he declares “If you want the ultimate, you’ve got to be willing to pay the ultimate price. It’s not tragic to die doing what you love,” he means it. 

Bodhi wants to push himself as hard as he can as far as he can, and nothing will stop him. Not his romance-turned-friendship with Tyler. Not the increasingly alarmed pleas of his fellow Ex-Presidents to back off when things start going sideways. Not his friendship/rivalry with Johnny. Not even the violent deaths of people he loves when things really go bad. He’s going to surf the 50-Year Storm when it hits Bells Beach, Australia – no matter the cost of getting there.

Bodhi’s villainy is born from his destructive obsession with his ideals and his total inability to take a loss.

Bodhi’s not a callous manipulator, nor is he a heartless killer. He deeply cares for his crew, Tyler and Johnny. He claims to hate violence, and Swayze plays the line sincerely. When the Ex-Presidents go down, he’s heartbroken and visibly grieves for them. It would be a stretch to call him “evil” in the way, say, the villains in Bigelow’s Strange Days are evil. Paradoxically though, Bodhi’s better aspects ultimately enhance his villainy.

Like Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), the scuzzy protagonist of Strange Days, Bodhi lives in a dream. But where Lenny ultimately has the character and courage to step into the present, Bodhi – for all his daring and physical courage – proves himself to be a moral coward. He recognizes the horrific consequences of his actions, but he steadfastly refuses to face them. Watch Swayze’s eyes when Bodhi finds himself in crisis – he weighs his options and always, always opts to prioritize his needs first and foremost. He doubles and triples down on a reckless scheme to get everything he wants and succeeds only in getting almost everyone he loves killed. The climax of Point Break is as much Bodhi’s slow-motion self-destruction as it is a series of escalating confrontations between Johnny and the Ex-Presidents.

Bodhi knows that he’s making bad calls and taking needless risks. But prioritizing the people he loves over the pursuit of his dream would mean backing down. It would mean being afraid. And, for all that he talks about how fear can be a weapon, Bodhi would rather run from his fear than face it. So he dives further into thrills – taking too long to torch a car in the midst of a getaway, blackmailing Johnny into participating in the Ex-Presidents’ last job, trying to blow the vault during that job and playing a game of parachute chicken with him – in the hope of drowning his fear and his guilt in adrenaline.

By Point Break’s dénouement, Bigelow and Swayze have stripped away Bohdi’s mystique. When Johnny tracks him to Bells Beach, the “ultimate searcher” expresses remorse for how badly things went and then tries to run. Again. When Johnny successfully cuffs him, Bodhi is reduced to begging. 

For all his passion and daring, Bodhi simply is not capable of seeing past his dream. Not when the Ex-Presidents beg him to cut their losses and bail. Not when Johnny makes it clear that he’s only cooperating with Bohdi to protect Tyler. Not even when Johnny has literally handcuffed him.

In the end, a strange blend of friendship, pity and disgust move Johnny to let Bodhi go out on his own terms. The waves created by the 50-year-storm are lethal but surfing them is everything Bohdi’s longed for. With cliffs on both sides of the beach and the Australian police closing in, Bodhi catches his last wave, rides it briefly and is swiftly consumed. His dream devours him, just as it did the rest of the Ex-Presidents, just as it did Johnny’s partner Angelo (Gary Busey), just as it almost did to Tyler and Johnny.

There’s something romantic and stylish in Bohdi’s doom, but also something very sad and very small. It’s a fitting end for a man whose passion both made and unmade him. 

In Bodhi, Bigelow and Swayze created an action villain for the ages. There’s a lot of reasons to love Point Break. The work they do with him is one of the best.

Point Break Trailer:

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