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Point Break (1991) - Setups, Payoffs, and Presidential Characters


An action crime story about a rookie FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a group of Sothern California surfers suspected of bank robbery. It’s a great screenplay to study setups and payoffs and how delving into character provides both stakes and audience investment.

Johnny Utah is the main character. He is fresh out of FBI training and fresh in LA, assigned to the robbery division. He’s a former college football star from Ohio, which comes into play later and helps him befriend Bodhi, his friend, and nemesis. He’s a young agent eager to make a name for himself. Upon arrival at the LA office, a cocky supervisor harp assigns him to Angelo Pappas. When Utah concocts the story for Tyler about his parents' death, elements of it ring actually true for the character. Or at least the undercover story raises a couple of questions… did he go to law school because of his parents, and is he in the FBI to defy his parents?

Angelo Pappas. Johnny’s partner. Close to retirement, he’s the weathered cynical agent who also brings a lot of experience. It is his theory that the Ex-Presidents, i.e. the robbers who are responsible for 30 robberies, are surfers. He supports the theory with two bits of information, namely the tan line on the mooning surfer’s behind and a soil sample which helps them narrow down the beach location.

Bodhi. He’s the leader of the surfer group and the bank robbers aka Ex-Presidents. He’s an expert surfer who lives for surfing and believes that living life outside the 9-5 grind on his own terms is reason enough to justify robbing banks. He’s a modern-day philosopher and it’s no wonder people are drawn to him. He is all about the flow and the spiritual experience of surfing, yet a darker side is revealed in the end when he kidnaps Tyler. As he most certainly would anticipate that the FBI would be waiting for him at Bell’s beach in Australia…he’s mentioned the 50-year storm on multiple occasions, the character stays true to his adrenaline junkie/surf philosopher self and shows up anyway. The draw of the ultimate ride being bigger than the fear of being caught. His philosophy includes appreciating death while doing something you love. And that fear will cause hesitation which in turn causes the worst fears to come true. He is not a character who hesitates, damn the consequences.

Tyler. Surfer, Bodhi’s ex, and Utah’s love interest. But more than that she’s his way into Bodhi’s surf gang. In the end, she also becomes the stakes character.

Bodhi’s Crew. Every leader needs followers, he has the surfer dudes who dig the endless summer lifestyle and a few of them willingly participate in the robberies to finance it. In reality, they’re just young surfer dudes, who probably haven’t given too much thought to the potential consequences of their actions.

Surf Nazis. Another surf gang. They are the opposite of what Bodhi and his crew stand for, they’re drug peddlers and indulge in violence for violence’s sake. They serve as a red herring.

The relationship between Utah and Bodhi makes the screenplay work, and work on screen with the cast. There’s a mutual appreciation between a characters and even though there’s a rivalry and several instances of playing chicken…who will open the parachute first, the budding friendship seems appropriate and believable. The main difference being that while Utah learns from Bodhi and evolves, Bodhi remains who he always was and dies.

The FBI agents at the bureau, starting with the boss harp as well as the other team, seemed to be nasty to each other to a degree that felt unnatural. Perhaps that’s an element of early 90s style that hasn’t aged well. But the rivalry within the FBI felt forced. I wonder if this was done on purpose to juxtapose them with tight-knit friendliness among the surfers, and even the loyalty and togetherness among the surf Nazis. The law bickers, while the outlaws get along…yin/yang. Or perhaps it was just a stylistic choice, but it stood out to me.

To me the theme of Point Break is …what does it mean to live life on your own terms? And Bodhi and Utah represent the two sides of that question. The answer to this question seems to lie with Tyler, who seems to live life on her own terms, but still functions in society, i.e. she’s not a square but she’s also not a criminal. She also becomes the stakes character in the end when Bodhi uses her to facilitate escape, enforcing her character’s position as the balance between the two extremes.

In general, the dialog felt adequate if not inspired. One aspect though stood out and not in a good way…the quips and smart-alecky responses, especially by the FBI agents felt unnatural. It made the FBI characters look clownish and 1-dimensional. Compared to a crime thriller story like Heat where the dialog is not just efficient but poignant as well, this felt like it was attempting to be cool and irreverent. It wasn’t enough to ruin the screenplay or film, but enough to notice. Perhaps this is simply part of the aging as the film came out in 1991.

I hadn’t seen the film in a while before reading the script, I found the descriptions of the action sequences worked well and painted a good picture. Not long blocks of text but rather single action lines that help build the frenzy of the action with a staccato cadence.

Besides the adrenaline action (surfing, parachuting), the story has 3 major action sequences. The red-herring raid of the Surf Nazi house, the mid-point bank robbery, and the final bank robbery, which ends in a shoot-out at Santa Monica airport and the final parachute-less jump.

The foot chase is both written very well and translated well on film… dynamic, realistic, and exciting.

There was an element of the raid at the Surf Nazi house that felt odd. Regardless of Utah being late to the raid, the team only figures moves and positions on the spot. A small detail but one would expect that an FBI team would have planned all possible details in advance. This felt like an oversight.

This screenplay and film took advantage of setting up and paying off several key elements very well.

Utah’s football history helps him infiltrate the group and later prevents him to continue the pursuit due to an old knee injury.

The clue of the mooning surfer helps Utah realize that his friends are the robbers.

The 50-year storm, and the biggest swell it brings, help Utah apprehend Bodhi in the end, as well as wrap up the story.

The robbery rule was to never go after the vault, and once they break that rule, things go wrong.

Bodhi’s statement that it’s not tragic to die doing something you love, which he presumably does in the end.

When Utah and Taylor get involved, she tells him that Bodhi uses people and then discards them. At this point, it seems like a throw-away line by an ex. But in the very end when Bodhi kidnaps her, we realize how true that statement is. It resonates and works quite well.

Being that it’s a classic action film and structure, the criminals are criminals and the cops are cops...the characters don’t evolve much. The only growth belongs to Utah. He is changed by surfing and the flow of the waves, and even though he learns Bodhi is Reagan, one of the bank robbers, he refuses to shoot him when he has a chance. It seems that Bodhi’s life philosophy or at least the non-criminal part is something that resonates with him. He learns that it’s not all black and white as he may have thought when he started. And even though he follows through and apprehends Bodhi in the very end, thus succeeding in the overall story goal, and his character task, instead of taking him into custody, he lets Bodhi go out on his own terms (and into certain death) and then tosses his FBI badge into the surf, thus “going out” on his own terms as well.

He didn’t have to do that. Once Bodhi was handcuffed, the task was accomplished. There were no reasons to free him and let him paddle into the monster surf. He does it out of his own humanity, which is probably different than it was when he started in the FBI. It’s probably the same humanity that makes him toss the badge. Thus both he and Bodhi accomplish what they set out to and wrap the story up both for plot and character.

Screenplay by W. Peter Iliff

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

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