I had a hankering to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s seminal action film the other day, but I had that hankering after a road reached up and smacked me hard in the head and so I walked out of Aro Video with the wrong one. To be fair, the staff did quiz me on it, but by the time I’d gotten to the counter I couldn’t be arsed fixing my error. It’s been 20-odd years since I last saw Point Break , so my memory of it is hazy and mostly parsed through references such as Hot Fuzz, which is itself now more than a decade old. It’s therefore become more of a mythology than a specific film, and the duel between friendship and morality has become, if not a staple, a leitmotif in the modern action genre as seen in The Fast and the Furious  etc. These movies all inhabit a genre space that’s widely regarded as dumb, but where I think surprisingly sophisticated storytelling strategies are in play at a structural level, and critics mistake a lack of a serious aesthetic for a lack of serious design – a case I’ve made before, for Fast 7. Like all genre films, Point Break thus lives or dies on the detailing of its implementation of a story structure.
Let me break that structure down a bit, as Umberto Eco famously did for Bond in The Role of the Reader:
Step 1 – Establish the “protagonist”‘s credentials, or more pertinently, their near credentials. The point of view character must be sort of capable of entering the world of the criminal, but they’re not entering that world as a genuine rival to the main “villain”, but as a potential protege.
Step 2 – The meet-cute is engineered by the would-be crimestopping protagonist. Inevitably they’re shown for to be inferior but promising, and there’s enough chemical energy for the relationship to seem interesting.
Steps 3 – Trust and expertise are built as the hero works his way into the inner circle and begins to imbibe the
Step 4 – Tragedy strikes as something goes wrong and a key member of the team is killed, creating an opening for a new but promising member of the team.
Step 5 – The heist where things “get real” and the hero must ostensibly decide where his loyalties lie, but fails in his moral character, unable to discard his regard for the villain. Nonetheless, in this process they are outed.
Step 6 – The hero must use his inside knowledge to get one step ahead of the villain, leading to a final true confrontation where the hero’s loyalties are finally established in favour of law and order.
Obviously, as with any such skeletal summary, there are major variations here, such as the distortions in Step 6 in The Fast and the Furious. In our three-act-structure obsessed world, I think most would summarise Steps 1-3 as “Act 1” with Step 4 as “Act 2”, and roll the last two steps into “Act 3”. I hope by pulling out these steps explicitly the stupidity of trying to squash the story into a nice and linear three-act structure is obvious.
You may also see some passing similarities to the Hero’s Journey, but bear in mind that adaptation for a new purpose of existing story structures is as sophisticated as human art gets. Don’t we have a hero here who finds a dark version of the wise mentor? He at first refuses the call to becoming a hero in order to not slay the villain. Yet, the dramatic energy from a classical Hero’s Journey comes from the dramatic transformation of the main character, such as Mr Anderson transforming into The One by way of Neo – that isn’t really the source of dramatic energy or story shape in this narrative. Our protagonist undergoes something of a transformation through their near-seduction in the middle of the story and then un-transforms in the end. It’s something more like a failed romance story, like Annie Hall.
What this remake attempts to do that I don’t really recall in the original, is to explicitly mythologise the villain’s modus operandi. The seductive power in the original comes from a fairly general hedonistic lifestyle, one that purports to offer freedom from responsibility; this is wholly inverted in the remake, where the villains are trying to make a statement about the evils of modern capitalism with their crimes. They are in a sense righteous crusaders, though their cavalier acceptance of collateral damage makes it impossible to really sympathise with them or to entirely buy the seriousness of their commitment to their stated philosophy. The hyper-masculinity in the original is retained and repurposed.
This is a crucial element of successfully adapting a work – in fact, it is absolutely essential to restructure and re-present the material, as Harold Bloom articulated so forcefully in The Anxiety of Influence. The review on RogerEbert.com makes this point very clearly, but without recognising it at all:
The original “Point Blank” may have been a spectacularly stupid movie but at least it was straightforward and direct. Here, Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay meanders all over the place and is so concerned with allowing Bodhi to spout his kooky koans about becoming one with nature through the Ozaki Eight that it neglects to adequately explain what the challenges are or what they are supposed to represent.https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/point-break-2015
In fact, reviews of this ilk are a dime a dozen, strongly showing that while critics were able to recognise what was happening, they couldn’t see the strategy being deployed – they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Let’s leave aside for the moment the misreading of the original, the conscious attempt to reframe the film as a semi-mystical exploration of extreme sports definitely has a kernel of interest. This bland dismissal just doesn’t grapple with the film to determine whether the strategy was successful. There was every chance it could have been successful, and joined the pantheon of remakes that we forget are remakes, because they make their originals seem like an ill-formed predecessor, if they’re remembered at all.
Of course, I’ve got to admit that this is no 5-star classic, however interesting I find its attempt to repurpose the “spectacularly stupid” action film into something better. But I think that the failure in this film is where it cannot completely escape the original, and instead consciously repeats critical moments and shots. Indeed, it’s not easy to read the entire aesthetic of the re-cast central pair as trying anything other than to recreate the dynamic of Reeves and Swayze. Truly that was the time to “kill your darlings” and completely reimagine the characters to better suit the reimagined morality tale in progress.