Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze’s on-screen chemistry, along with Kathryn Bigelow’s creative direction, made Point Break one of the most beloved cult classics for action movie fanatics. The film had Swayze play a guru-like surfer by day and a ruthless bank robber by night and Keanu Reeves as an undercover agent who gets caught up in a wave of conflicting emotions as he tries to take Swayze down.
The ideological tension between the two leads was enticing, and the lines between “good guy and bad guy” were often blurred. Bigelow described it best: “When your good guy—your hero—is seduced by the darkness inside him and your villain is no villain whatsoever,” – that’s what made Point Break such a great film. It put into question morality, values, and friendship.
Let’s see how they made it happen.
The co-producer of the film, Rick King, was relaxing on the beach, gazing at the sky, then at the waves, then at an L.A. Weekly article naming Los Angeles as the robbery capital of America. That’s when the idea for the movie hit him. He cooked up a story about an undercover agent, a gang of surfers, and robberies done for the thrill of it.
“And then I was sitting on a beach in Malibu, learning how to surf, and I’d just gotten out of the water. And I thought, Surfers who rob banks. And an FBI agent that’s a good athlete that goes undercover among those surfers,” King shared, “It just made a lot of sense, and everything just flowed from that.”
The film’s creators wanted to call the movie “Johnny Utah,” after Keanu Reeves’ character. But the title was deemed too boring, too simplistic. So, they ended up switching it to “Riders on the Storm,” after the classic Doors song, and that’s how it was referred to during the first half of production.
Ultimately, it was renamed “Point Break,” the most reasonable name out of the three. Point Break is a surfing term for what is considered the perfect wave. It’s a wave that hits a stretch of land extended from the coastline, causing a really long, stable wave.
The movie’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, was so set on Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah that she wasn’t willing to do it without him. The studio, on the other hand, was rooting for bigger names like Johnny Depp. But the director was adamant, and she gave an ultimatum – either Keanu or she’s out.
“Keanu was Kathryn Bigelow’s personal battle,” said screenwriter W. Peter Iliff. Producer Peter Abrams agreed, “To her credit, she was the one that said, ‘I’m gonna turn him into an action star,’” he added. Good thing she stood her ground. Breaking Point proved to be Reeve’s breakthrough into the action genre.
To play undercover agent Johnny Utah, Keanu Reeves met with real FBI agents and followed them along on their workdays. He studied the ins and outs, the way they spoke, the way they dealt with different situations, and the way they caught their suspects.
Reeves also trained with football coaches at UCLA before filming the football scene. His character, Utah, was a man whose shot at an BFL career was shut down because of a knee injury. Fun fact: In real life, Reeve’s shot at a hockey career ended after he suffered a similar injury.
Point Break’s crew arranged for Keanu Reeves to meet with an actual FBI agent, so he could get a solid idea of what it was like to work in the investigative field. The consultant in question, though, Special Agent William J. Rehder, didn’t have very nice things to say about the film.
The agent said that none of the tips and advice he gave Reeves about FBI tactics “came within a million miles of the finished film.” Redher, who’s an expert in Bank Robbery investigation, added that Point Break was “one of the dumbest bank robbery movies ever made.” Ouch…
To create the gang of “Ex-Presidents,” Kathryn Bigelow looked for people who were first and foremost surfers. Then she went on to judge their acting skills. Both Bojesse Christopher (Grommet) and John Philbin (Nathaniel) were professional surfers who acted on the side.
The film’s leading stars, Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, and Lori Petty, all took introductory surfing lessons with surfer Dennis Jarvis in Kauai, Hawaii. They managed to pick up some moves that helped them get more into character.
Some of you may have missed this, but one of the members in the rowdy surf gang is Red Hot Chili Peppers’ frontman Anthony Kiedis. Interestingly, Point Break wasn’t his first acting gig. He also starred in the film F.I.S.T. as Sylvester Stallone’s son.
Kiedis was happy to make a cameo in Point Break, but he wasn’t so thrilled with all the training. As it turns out, he slacked off during fight training sessions held by stunt coordinator Glenn Wilder. Wilder warned him, “If you don’t come and practice, I can’t use you.”
“[Anthony] didn’t like that at all,” Glenn recalled.
Speaking of training sessions, stunt coordinator Glenn Wilder put the gang through some sweaty, sweaty practices. On the weekends, they were ordered to practice their throws and punches. The film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow didn’t want to bring in stuntmen. She counted on the guys to be able to do it on their own.
Because Kiedis was a bit (how to put this?) lazy, Wilder ordered to have his character knocked out with only one punch during the movie’s infamous fight sequence. Bigelow agreed. She believed that there was no reason to give him more screen time if he wasn’t willing to put in the work.
To get zoom shots of the actors during the skydiving scenes, a crane rig with a telescoping arm was construed for each actor. The rigs allowed the cast to read out their lines while the camera captured them from below to give the sense they were floating.
That being said, there was one guy in the cast who actually knew how to skydive – Patrick Swayze. He did it as a hobby in his spare time and was desperate to do it in the film too. Unfortunately for him, the filmmakers told him that wasn’t a possibility because of insurance issues.
Producers let Swayze jump only one time during filming – the shot where his character, Bodhi, yells “Adios amigo!” while falling from the plane. The camera then follows Swayze as he drops further and further.
Ironically, although producers were scared Swayze might get hurt, they were pretty fine about letting him surf, despite not having much experience.
“I had to battle insurance companies to get to do the skydiving in the movie,” Patrick Swayze recalled, “and I never came close to dying once. But they never said one word about me getting my brains pounded in by the biggest surf on this planet.”
Because he hadn’t used a stunt double for crazy things like car chases and fight scenes in his previous films, Swayze refused to use one for his surfing scenes in Point Break. His stubbornness, however, led to four cracked ribs while filming the surfing scenes.
Swayze wasn’t an experienced surfer, but he worked hard enough to make it seem like he was.
The only scenes he needed a double for were ones that were seriously challenging, like the stormy sequence at the end. For that scene, a famous surfer named Darrick Doerner did the job.
Patrick Swayze (Bodhi) had done some surfing before, but nothing too serious. Keanu Reeves (Utah) had never even surfed (despite having Hawaiian ancestry), and, surprisingly, Lori Petty (who played Tyler, Utah’s love interest) had never been in the sea before.
Reeves was allowed to look like somewhat of a newbie because his character wasn’t supposed to be good at surfing anyway. But Petty and Swayze had to work hard to appear like they knew what they were doing. “All I cared about was getting good enough to where, when they cut from me to my big wave double, that I wouldn’t look like Bobby Darin on a soundstage in a ’50s beach-bunny movie,” Swayze once said.
Kathryn and her crew really went all out to create wild and raw energy for the notorious fight sequence between Bodhi and Utah. In the scene, something a bit odd happens – Bodhi throws a pit bull at Utah, and Utah kicks it away. They pulled it off in a humane form by gently tossing the dog at Keanu (they claimed that the ground was padded).
Afterward, for obvious reasons, a fake pup was used when Utah threw the kick. The scene was then carefully edited, combining the shots of the real dog and its whimper to the fake dog being tossed aside.
Some fans weren’t too happy with the scene. They believe that tossing the dog, despite the padded ground, is still considered abuse.
Producers of the film had several other actors in mind when it came to Johnny Utah’s character. They thought of Johnny Dep, Val Kilmer, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, and Matthew Broderick. Interestingly, even Patrick Swayze, who nailed his part as Bodhi, first auditioned to play Utah.
Luckily, the part went to Keanu Reeves, who was 25 years old at the time. To this day, Reeves considers Point Break as one of the films that changed his life the most. And not only his, but the viewers’ lives as well. “All the time I run into people, and they say, ‘I started jumping out of planes because of “Point Break.” I started surfing because of “Point Break,” he told TIFF.
Point Break appeared on the silver screen in 1991, but the original script by W. Peter Iliff was written a few years before. The first director set to bring the story to life was Ridley Scott, and he came close to doing it back in 1987 until several producers backed out and the project was put to rest.
It was picked up and completed four years later by director Kathryn Bigelow and her husband at the time, James Cameron, who was working as the film’s executive producer. Bigelow had worked before on Blue Steel and Near Dark and was thrilled to begin her work on a new action film.
The screenplay for Point Break is credited mainly to W. Peter Iliff. But most of the final script was actually written by the director Kathryn Bigelow and her husband at the time, executive producer James Cameron. They tweaked it and moved things around to create a fantastic ending.
Iliff did a great job, though, and both Bigelow and Cameron were super pleased with him. At the time, Iliff had been working as a waiter when he met Point Break’s producer Rick King. King decided to take a leap of faith and hire him to write the first draft. He loved it.
The final sequence was filmed six months later when Reeves was already shooting “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” The scene shows Johnny Utah tracking Bodhi at Bells Beach, Australia, where the escapee is hoping to catch a massive wave following the alleged 50-year storm.
Reeve’s hair is noticeably longer during that scene due to his other acting commitment as Ted Theodore Logan. Swayze, on the other hand, has shorter hair. He cut his hair short for a role in City of Joy. Point Break’s producer, Peter Abrams, didn’t mind the change, saying it fit well with the storyline: “It works for the story in the sense that the Bodhi character is trying to hide,” he explained.
The enticing foot chase sequence is memorable partly because of the bizarre visuals of Johnny Utah’s target group fleeing him while wearing rubber Ronald Reagan masks. Though visually appealing and intriguing, adding the masks was also a production necessity because Swayze wasn’t present on set that day.
Patrick Swayze was off in Europe at that time promoting his hit movie Ghost. Swayze’s stunt double, Scott Wilder, appeared in that scene with the mask on. “To be able to perform to [Patrick’s] level, I had to have it together,” Scott recalled.
The foot chase scene where Reeves chases down the masked Ex-Presidents is incredibly gripping. They fly through homes and alleyways, and backyards. Understandably, the fast pace and tight quarters made it hard to shoot. So, the cameramen had to cook up some creative methods to make it possible.
Cinematographer Donald Peterman found a crafty solution for filming it. He offered to use something dubbed a “pogo-cam” – basically, a camera placed on the end of a stick, that allows the camera operator to move in ways that would be impossible if the camera were closer to their body.
Before Point Break hit the cinemas, 20th Century Fox was already eager to keep the genre going. They pushed for a sequel to be released. They planned to air it in the summer of 1993. A script was then written, and the film went into its pre-production phase.
Unfortunately, the movie didn’t do as well as they expected. Its success was modest, grossing around $90 million on a $24 million budget. Not bad at all! But still, not good enough for them to plan a sequel right away. Years later, in 2015, a remake was done (and it wasn’t good, sorry).
Skydiving photographer, Tom Sanders, worked on the film and told reporters from Skydive Perris that he had no idea the movie would turn out to be such a cult classic. According to Sanders, Point Break brought a massive wave of new skydivers.
“I knew it was a big deal since Patrick Swayze was involved, but I don’t recall expecting the level of influence it had on skydiving. It was long before GoPros so exposure to skydiving was pretty limited,” he explained. After Point Break, however, everyone wanted to jump out of planes and scream, “Adios amigo!”
Photographer Tom Sanders also admitted that Swayze was a bold, confident guy, who, despite not being allowed to skydive, would ask Sanders whether they could meet up sometime together and shoot some more shots. “Not even sure who paid for the jumps, but it didn’t involve the studio. He just wanted to make the scene better,” Sanders reported.
Swayze didn’t jump that much during filming. And even though he was a bit frustrated, he was still a pleasure to work with. “He was friendly, easy to approach, just a cool mellow guy with no attitude about being a movie star,” Sanders recalled.
The movie has two skydiving scenes. One jump was shot at California City Parachute Center, and the other was captured at Lake Powell. The only time they filmed at Skydive Perris was when Swayze asked Sanders to film him jumping to make the scenes a bit better.
Patrick Swayze was trained at Skydive Perris, so he was used to making jumps there.
Fun fact: Jumping runs in the Swayze family. His brother, Don, also trained at Skydive Perris. Don was the first to enter the sport and, seeing his brother fly into the air like that, Patrick followed shortly after.
Tom Sanders dished that during one of the skydiving sequences shot at California City, “the helicopter pilot underestimated the height of the tail and hit the vertical stabilizer with the rotor.” The skydivers reported seeing helicopter parts fall past them.
“In the plane were the real stunt doubles and unfortunately some people that were not skydivers such as a hair and make-up artists,” he recalled. The pilot told everyone to abort the aircraft, including non-jumpers (wearing emergency parachutes).
Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves’s chemistry in Point Break was great. But this wasn’t the first time they had joined forces in a film. The two men had co-starred a few years earlier in the 1986 film Youngblood. While Reeves wasn’t the star of the movie, Swayze remembers thinking, “this guy is going to go somewhere.”
Youngblood is a teen drama featuring Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze as leads. Reeves has a minor supporting role, but despite being a newbie, everyone around him sensed he was going to make it big. A few years later, he found himself starring side by side with Swayze in Point Break.
Patrick Swayze felt drawn to his character, Bodhi, whose nickname is an abbreviation of Bodhisattva – a Buddhist term referring to an enlightened being who dedicates his life to helping others gain enlightenment (as could, in a sense, be said of Utah and Bodhi’s bond).
Patrick Swayze’s interest in Buddhism began way before he shot Point Break. So, by the time he took on the role of Bodhi, he already understood a lot of what his character was saying and feeling. Another example of a role that reflected Swayze’s real-life spiritual interest was his part as a philosophical bouncer named Dalton in the movie Road House.
Johnny Utah’s love interest, Tyler, was set to be a typical blonde surfer with sun-kissed skin and long, flowing hair. The casting directors targeted those kinds of girls, and for the longest time, they denounced anyone who was brunette or ginger or black or whatever color that wasn’t the glimmering yellow they were after.
Until Lori Petty came along. With her tomboyish look, she stood out from all the rest. She sported a brunette pixie cut and an overall easy-going demeanor. With her striking blue eyes, she won them over. After auditioning hundreds of actresses, Bigelow chose Petty.
Point Break Live! was created after the film and consisted of actors performing the whole movie onstage. But the show has one catch: An audience member is chosen at random to play the role of Johnny Utah and the designated person must read all his lines with the help of cue cards.
That way, each performance ends up being the same, yet totally different. The storyline remains the same, but the person who carries it out does so in their own unique way. It’s a neat way of both watching and living the thrilling acts of robbing, surfing, and just living life on the edge.
Even though Johnny never made it past being a quarterback at Ohio State in the film, Point Break’s screenwriter, W. Peter Iliff, decided to give the character some extra ball spirit and based the character’s name on NFL quarterbacks Johnny Unita and Joe Montana.
Reeves loved his character’s name, describing him as a “total control freak,” who “the ocean beats up and challenges him.” Reeves believes that his character had a lot in common with Bodhi. The two of them sharing that “wild-man edge.”
During the movie’s promotion tour, the actors were asked to talk about the theme of the film. Keanu Reeves elaborated on what he thought was the main essence of the film, “I guess it’s the breakdown and restructuring of a man and a belief system, and also the discovery of himself,” he explained.
Patrick Swayze, who was 39 at the time of the film’s release, added: “It makes a statement about our society, in the United States, of giving up on yourself and becoming part of a system rather than staying an individual.”
Point Break was just the beginning for then 25-years-old Keanu Reeves. After wrapping up the film, Reeves went on to star beside Sandra Bullock in Speed. His next project, however, completely solidified his spot as an A-lister – The Matrix.
Reeves landed the part of Neo aka “The One,” after only one audition. “We [he and the creator of the franchise, Wachowskis] ended up hanging out in a parking lot outside the offices just talking and riffing, and we basically just kind of shook hands – they told me they wanted me to train for 4 months prior to filming, and I got a big grin on my face and said: ‘Yes’,” Keanu told Cinema Blend.
Actor Michael Biehn, who had worked with James Cameron in the films Aliens and The Terminator, regrets turning down an opportunity to work with Point Break’s director, Kathryn Bigelow. He could have joined in her in the 1987 vampire flick, Near Dark, but passed because he felt the script was too messy. A few years later, Bigelow was directing a film with Swayze.
When Biehn found out, he was upset. “It was a mistake that I made because I would have loved to have worked with Kathryn, because she went on to do the movie with Patrick Swayze and Keanu,” he told reporters.
The movie defies the laws of nature. According to Swayze, there’s no way you can skydive and talk at the same time. So, unfortunately, the bromantic scene where Johnny and Bodhi jump, accompanied by Bodhi’s memorable line, “Do it, you’re gonna die, Johnny!” isn’t a plausible event.
“You got 120-to-200-mile-an-hour winds, which is nothing but a giant roar. So, there is a little bit of poetic license taken with us having the conversation,” Swayze mentioned. We don’t mind, though. Their impossible chat added to the story’s drama.
Gary Busey (who played FBI agent Angelo Pappas) was familiar with surfing movies, having previously starred in 1978’s Big Wednesday. In Point Break, however, he wasn’t riding waves. He was busy cracking cases and letting his mouth run off a bit.
Apparently, director Kathryn Bigelow and the rest of the crew allowed the actor to improvise during scenes. Their easy-going attitude paid off, because Busey came up with one of the most memorable lines in the film. Initially, the script called for Angelo to ask Utah to get him a meatball sandwich, but Busey was actually in the mood for two. “Utah- get me two!” he casually yelled.
In addition to convincing viewers that he was a qualified FBI agent, Keanu Reeves also had to act as if he was a football player. And a good one too. Good enough to be scouted to go pro. While Reeves managed to adopt an agent-like mentality, he wasn’t able to throw a ball.
After several trials, and despite Reeves’s best efforts, the crew realized that Keanu would need a double for the football sequences. With the use of an actual football player and some careful editing, they managed to make it seem like Keanu was one hell of a player.
James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, husband, and wife, went head-to-head when Point Break hit the cinemas. In July 1991, the movie was released, but it competed with another great movie – Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which was written and directed by Cameron, who was also the executive producer of Point Break.
This marked a rare moment in the industry where two major films directed by a couple were competing against each other at the box office. Ultimately, Point Break came in second, grossing a respectable $90 million, whereas Terminator 2 made a phenomenal $520 million, making it the biggest film of 1991.
The action-comedy Hot Fuzz (2007) has several Point Break references throughout the film. The director of the movie, Edgar Wright, created a funny cop thriller where the main character, Danny Butterman, constantly praises Point Break.
In Hot Fuzz, Danny Butterman is forced to shoot a loved one but decides to fire his gun in the air instead. He screams in frustration, just like Johnny Utah does when he can’t bring himself to fire at Bodhi.
When asked about Hot Fuzz, Kathryn Bigelow said she loved it. “How could you not?” she told reporters.
Point Break was such an influential film that it was only natural for there to be a remake at some point. In December 2015, director Ericson Core released Point Break 2.0, with Edgar Ramirez starring as Bodhi and Luke Bracey as Johnny Utah. Unfortunately, it wasn’t done well.
The storyline and characters were mostly identical, but the audience’s response wasn’t. Film critic Noel Murray from the L.A. Times wrote: “while Bigelow’s version featured charismatic lead performances and ample pop, Core’s cast mumbles slowly and sparingly at one another until it’s time to jump off something.”
The 2015 version of Point Break had a budget of $105 million and made a little over $133 million at the box office.