Thriller sizzles then fizzles during third act


July 12, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

F. Scott Fitzgerald maintained that there were no second acts in American lives; I'm beginning to think that there are no third acts in American movies.

A case in point is "Point Break," the new Patrick Swayze-Keanu Reeves thriller, which for about an hour is as lean and vivid as any movie this year. It's fun, fun, fun til the director takes the story away.

It's as if Kathryn Bigelow and the writer W. Peter Iliff just threw up their hands and said, "Oh, hell, what difference does it make? It's only a movie!"

Bigelow is marginally famous as the woman who makes macho movies, always heavy on boy toys like six-shooters, Mossberg pump guns and speeding Camaros. She checked in with a tight little vampire thriller called "Near Dark" some years back, but then issued the lugubriously operatic "Blue Steel" of two years ago, which was a kind of love triangle between Jamie Lee Curtis and a Mr. Smith & a Mr. Wesson.

In the beginning, Bigelow looks as though she's defeated the giganticism that ultimately inflated "Blue Steel" until it floated off into the vapors of absurdity. She begins with a gritty, mordant premise: A crew of supremely proficient bank robbers, whose defining characteristic is that they wear the masks of ex-presidents and actually perform shtick while they operate, has hit a number of L.A. banks. They're always in and out in 90 seconds; they never bother with the vault; and they go away every winter.

A young FBI agent with the unlikely name of Johnny Utah (Reeves) joins a wily old agent named Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) in a hunt for the four. Busey's theory is that they're surfers who rob to finance their world-wide quest for the perfect tube.

Thus the lean, young ex-jock Utah sets out to penetrate surfer culture, and here the movie is at its best. Reeves gets exactly the young man's ambition, his physical courage and toughness, his ingenuity and his ruthlessness. By sucking up to a tough surfer girl (Lori Petty) and by virtue of his quick-study athletic skills, he manages to crack the cult.

There he discovers the mystical Bodhi, played by Patrick Swayze; he's a kind of Yoda with pecs, given to spouting beguiling nonsense and controlling the situation with the eerie calm in his intense blue eyes. On the board, in the thundering water, he's Nureyev with a really great tan. An adrenalin junkie, he seems to have built an ad hoc faith out of the quest for the total thrill.

Bigelow cuts back and forth between the office politics at the L.A. bureau office, where an unsympathetic supervisor is bearing down on Busey and Reeves, and Reeves' increasingly intriguing adventures in wave city. There's some wonderful surfing footage, by the way, but more amusing is the relationship between Reeves and Swayze, who recognize in each other a kindred, if reckless, spirit. Meanwhile, the explosive bank robberies keep happening, and to keep things hopping, Bigelow throws in a raid on a surf-Nazi beach house which ultimately comes to nothing plot-wise, but has an unsettling urgency to it.

This woman can direct action. She loves to throw the camera in close so that the viewer is in the center with the participants, reading the cues, ducking the bullets, throwing shots at fleeting targets. And she's quite good at edgy masculine relationships, the way hostility can masquerade as affection and the way the boys have got to turn everything -- everything! -- into a peeing contest.

But . . . did a dry California wind scramble the script as they moved into the third act? Did the tape recorder go on the blitz at the story conferences? Was there a fire in the editing room?

Part of the problem is Swayze -- not the actor, the icon. It takes a while, but it soon becomes obvious that he's a monster. His brand of bull is the usual purple self-deluded garbage by which tyrants convince the moronic to die for them; his technique is to turn everything into a quest-myth while he lines his pockets. But it's as if Bigelow is afraid to face the implications of Swayze's character and the film expresses great indecisiveness about dealing with him, finally giving him a sort of surf-Viking's journey to Valhalla. But this is a guy who shot an extremely heroic policeman point-blank; he deserved the wrong end of a .357 magnum, not a Wagnerian Gotterdammerung.

The ending in other ways is equally dithered. The action is never clear; it seems to involve a hostage situation but we're never sure how or why or even who has engineered it. It's also not dramatically contained: Irritatingly, the ending action spills from bank to airport to airplane to mid-air to desert, but never quite narrows and builds so much as sputters out and must limp sadly to a dissolute denouement that begs for the postscript: "Many months later."

Reeves is the best thing in the film and the second best thing is the Bigelow of Reels 4, 5 and 7, but not Reels 8-12. As for Swayze . . . he hangs about a 6.5.

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