Let us consider the curious case of Kathryn Bigelow. She is, arguably, contemporary Hollywood’s most important female director, at least as measured by her directorial Oscar win in 2009, the only such victory by a woman. And she has acquired this status while being among the very few major woman filmmakers to completely (and, to judge from her interviews, intentionally) eschew feminising elements in her movies. Not merely in that she favors male characters, though this is the case - of the three big Oscar frontrunners in 2009, the other two were directed by the laddish James Cameron (her ex-husband) and the god-king of all bro film buffs, Quentin Tarantino, and Bigelow’s was the only one without a female lead. It is also true of her emphatically masculine style: rugged action/thriller storytelling with a raw, ragged quality that is distinguishable from the male action directors surrounding her only in that, generally speaking, she’s better at it.

And, I am increasingly finding, much better at it. I enter into evidence 1991’s Point Break, a film which I have managed to avoid till now, mostly on the grounds that its individual elements all sound irredeemably awful: Keanu Reeves during his most comically banal phase, Patrick Swayze during his... anything, a cops & robbers movie about surfing. Having watched and thoroughly enjoyed the picture, I still don’t think those elements are anything other than irredeemably awful: neither of the leading men give a performance that rises above the level of sheer adequacy, and Reeves spends lengthy passages of the movie unable to hit even that height. But it works, through sheer dogged commitment to everything, whether it’s the corny surfing montages that resemble the AIP beach movies of the 1960s filtered through the sensibility of a perfume ad, or the generic themes of male camaraderie and mutual respect which are anchored by a gravitas which should feel entirely unearned but manages to be downright touching in some scenes, or the fucking amazing action scenes. And it these above all that set Point Break apart: not merely a film that is much better than it should be, but a film that is outright great. Better yet, a film that’s forward-looking in some surprising ways: as befits its release date, Point Break is a nearly flawless marriage of the genre clichés of the classic ‘80s-model cop action picture with the elevated physicality of the ‘90s action films to come.

A plot synopsis seems kind of silly and besides the point: have I not said "cops & robbers movie about surfing"? And that pretty much says all there is to say about the script, credited to W. Peter Iliff from a story he wrote with Rick King, though it is understood that the final draft was heavily reworked by Bigelow and Cameron. Whatever the case, Point Break is constructed more out of story concepts than actual story beats, which I do not mean as an insult. Concepts are all that are required: the interesting bits are the characters and the action, and the story is mostly there to stitch them together. But anyway, the stitching looks like this: Johnny Utah (Reeves) is a former college athlete who went to law school after an injury ended his football career, and is now a newly-minted field agent for the FBI, working in southern California. He's teamed with black sheep Agent Pappas (Gary Busey) in a kind of unholy duo of the people that Agent Harp (John C. McGinley), the head of the office, wants to get the hell out of his hair, and the two of them dedicate their energies to tracking the Ex-Presidents gang, a group of thieves that, every summer for three years running, plow through the region's banks at a frenzied clip, while wearing masks of the U.S. presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan. But not Gerald Ford. Poor Ford. Can't even get the respect of B-movie criminals.

Pappas is convinced that the gang is made up of surfers, arriving and leaving with the tidal cycles, and to this end, Utah infiltrates the local surf scene, getting instruction in the physics from tetchy lady surfer Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty), and in the philosophy and spirituality from a blond, stubbly peacenik type going by the name Bodhi (Swayze). Utah is so taken with Bodhi's calm, beatific sense of how life is and should be that he begins to find himself drawn into the outsider world of surfers, and starting to lose focus on his FBI work. Of course, narrative economy tells us pretty much from the second that Bodhi is introduced that he's going to turn out to be the leader of the bank robbers, and when the film finally cops to this fact about midway through, it doesn't seem to really expect us to be surprised. Anyway, it makes for a second half that's a good deal tenser in showing the relationship between the two men caught in a horrible net of mutual respect and admiration, and the fact that one of them has to end up dead or in prison at some point or another. So Gidget with guns, really.

To be scrupulously fair, the best version of Point Break is one that has a more credible pair of actors in the central duo - Reeves and Swayze actually do have impressive homosocial chemistry, finding complements in each other's limited, matinee-movie approaches to constructing personality. But while they work together rather appeallingly, neither of them works all that well individually, and it's hard to imagine how the film couldn't improve if Utah, at least, was a more vivid character and not quite such an empty vessel. Still, Bigelow's directing deals with this by not caring about the deficiencies in her performers and granting them the same weight in the frame as one would for anybody who could control a close-up with more internal expression. And oddly enough, this works: throughout all the character-dominated moments (and there are many), I found myself torn by the paradox that what I was watching wasn't interesting in the least, and yet I was interested anyway.

The film definitely finds its surest footing in its action scenes, though, when Bigelow and her solid team of craftspeople can give up having to sell a surface-level story build around equally surface-level performances, and simply indulge in the joy of kineticism - something that Bigelow is really fucking good at presenting, as her later work bears out repeatedly. The film's obvious highlight, to me, is a foot chase square in the middle, with Utah frantically pursuing the man he doesn't yet know to be Bodhi in a mask, in an action scene that is thrillingly progressive in the annals of American action cinema. The stripped-down rawness of this chase scene is terrific in every way, equal parts throwback to the rough, realist action cinema of the 1970s, and claim for a new kind of American action that stopped trying to come in second place to the violent poetry of Hong Kong action cinema, and replacing it with spare physicality instead. Not that the enormous gun battles of the '80s would ever go away, of course (they're even in this very film), but in this moment, Point Break comes near the start of a tradition that would shortly include things like In the Line of Fire and The Fugitive, action movies about humans instead of action movies about action stars (a trend I would separate from something like Die Hard in that it has more clearly cordoned-off setpieces).

That being said, there's plenty of more expansive, big-style action, and it works pretty damn well too: there's a skydiving sequence that's absolutely jaw-dropping in its fearlessly sprawling ambition and scale, though it feels so conspicuously like a stunt that it stands apart from the film in a way that the foot chase doesn't. But it doesn't simply work because it has well-staged action sequences, but because Bigelow builds a constant state of tension, especially in the second half. And the action functions as the eruption of that tension as it starts to build up too much pressure. A simple thing, maybe, but it's not at all like the generic template of the '80s action film, where the action is often as not an unpremeditated violent outburst that doesn't naturally come out of anything but the number of pages since the last one. It gives Point Break a smooth development that makes it feel like a real, proper movie, with escalating stakes and everything, and a coda that functions as a nice, slow exhale to release us from those stakes. The whole thing feels like a bad joke on paper, but the rigor and control of its production put it over, and for that I am terribly happy to have a director with Bigelow's strictness and focus and fascination with the possibilities of the human body in motion.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1991
-Oliver Stone tries to find out what really happened to JFK
-The Disney Renaissance hits its peak with the visual and musical glories of Beauty and the Beast
-Joel & Ethan Coen win the Palme d'Or with their masterful Hollywood satire Barton Fink

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1991
-Greek director Theo Angelopoulos begins his Border trilogy with The Suspended Step of the Stork
-In its last year of existence, the Soviet Union produces such films as the Cannes competitor The Assassin of the Tsar, and My Best Friend, General Vasili, the Son of Joseph Stalin
-It requires the combined resources of the United Kingdom and France to produce the all-time legendary awful sequel Highlander II: The Quickening