Johnny Utah is bad at his job.
That’s actually an understatement; Johnny Utah is catastrophically terrible at his job, and during the course of Point Break he manages to get an awful lot of people killed, including his partner, some random hoodlums and an off-duty cop. Johnny Utah sucks.
This weekend I had the chance to see Point Break in 35mm for the first time since it originally opened; since 1991 I have maybe seen the film once in full, but have caught it in bits and pieces many times on cable TV. That sort of viewing - incomplete, diving in without context - didn’t allow me to see the full picture of how shockingly bad Johnny Utah is, and it wasn’t until this latest screening that all the pieces snapped into place.
From the start Utah sucks. The movie doesn’t even give him the agency to figure out that the Ex-Presidents are surfers - he walks into a scenario where Gary Busey’s Angelo Pappas already has this theory. Utah ‘inspires’ Pappas to look into it more, but it’s more than a little weird that our hero has absolutely no role in putting into motion the solving of this case. Hell, the only reason why Utah is the guy on the surfboard in this undercover scenario is because Pappas is too old.
Once Utah gets undercover he just keeps being pointless; he spends all of his time with Lori Petty’s Taylor, who quite obviously couldn’t be in the gang as they’re all men. He meets her by accident, and at no point in his initial involvement with her does he even begin to think she could lead him to the bank robbers. All he’s doing with her is learning to surf and getting laid. It’s poor, unprofessional conduct.
Once Utah does get in with the bank robbers he’s far too stupid to realize it. And he only makes it into their good graces when Bodhi recognizes him as a college football star. That’s troubling on multiple levels: for one thing, why would you send in a famous guy to go undercover? It would take about two minutes at the library to blow up Utah’s story about his dead parents. For another, he wasn’t using the ‘I’m a famous athlete’ approach - he was just kind of being a pain in the ass hanging around the surfer boys. If Bodhi hadn’t figured out who he was, Utah would have been off wandering the beach alone again with his embarrassing surfboard, no closer to cracking the case.
Not that it really mattered whether Utah was close to the guys - he immediately decided that a group of surf Nazis were his target, seemingly only because they beat him up. This doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at the history of the Ex-Presidents, who are a gang who operate in a professional, largely non-violent way. How could Utah have watched the robbery tapes and thought these guys who swerved all over the road and were hair-trigger violent racists, have been the guys who got in and out of banks in 90 seconds flat? But this is just the beginning of Johnny Utah’s shitty police work.
It is worth noting that this is the first time Utah gets people killed, but it won’t be the last. The raid on the surf Nazi house is a monumental disaster, compounded by the fact that not only were these guys not his perps, they were part of an elaborate sting operation headed by DEA Agent Tom Sizemore! Utah doesn’t just get people killed, he loses the US government a lot of time and money and totally fucks up their effort to bust up a major meth ring.
When Utah does finally key in on the fact that his brahs are the bank robbers it’s almost by accident. It actually hits him when he sees one of the dudes moon another ten hanging surf doggie, possibly the strangest eureka moment in a crime movie ever. But Utah’s moment of discovery doesn’t come in private or as the result of his snooping, it comes as he is walking down a public beach and sees the way these guys interact (which is how they had been interacting all along). He just stumbles into it.
It’s here that Utah has a chance to redeem himself but he really just continues fucking it up. After tailing Bodhi and friends he makes an educated guess about which bank they’re going to hit next. They do hit it, as Utah is ordering lunch and Pappas is giggling at the comic strips (you have to think that John C McGinley’s character is right about these two idiots), and the feds almost miss their men. But Utah sees them at the last minute and, instead of jumping in the car and giving chase, he opens fire on them in the middle of a crowded street.
Jump ahead to the end of this irresponsibly violent chase as Utah, bad knee re-baddened, sees Bodhi escaping over a fence and, instead of shooting his zen surf master, fires a whole clip into the air while going “AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”, as PC Danny Butterman might say. We have multiple levels of fucking up on display here - couldn’t Utah, who we’re told is a crack shot, have tried to at least wing Bodhi? Also, doesn’t Utah know those bullets have to come down somewhere? If they don’t fall right back on his own face they’re definitely coming down in a residential neighborhood, maybe through the skull of a child. Way to be a fuck up, Utah. You punk quarterback asshole.
All the rest of this stuff we could write off. They’re the elements that film needs to have happen to keep moving, after all - if Utah were any good at his job Point Break would end very, very quickly. But what Utah does now isn’t just stupid, it’s inept and probably borderline actionable: he goes home and goes to bed.
Utah knows who these guys are. He knows their names. They moved out of their house, but he certainly must be aware of some of their known associates, or have some thoughts about where they would hide out. Instead of coordinating a manhunt and putting out an APB on these dudes, he goes home and catches some winks. And this bizarre, foolish choice is what ends up getting a whole bunch more people killed the next day, including Pappas.
It’s important to remember that the Ex-Presidents operate like a machine. With the calm center of Bodhi calling the shots they have hit 30 banks and have been like ghosts, and as far as we can tell they’ve never hurt anyone in the process. It’s the platonic ideal of bank robberies - fast, easy, mostly peaceful.
But now that’s all over. Bodhi knows that Utah is on to them, even if his surfing buddy never saw him with the Reagan mask off. Bodhi knows the jig is up, that the Ex-Presidents are over. This rattles him. The spiritual waver rider is shook, and as such he makes a huge mistake that costs a lot of lives, including that of a heroic police officer. Thinking that this next job will probably be their last job - likely ever - Bodhi breaks his own rules and goes for the vault.
That isn’t the only way that Utah fucks it all up. On the ride to the bank Bodhi gives Utah a speech about strength, and how the projection of strength can help avoid conflict. Showing weakness, Bodhi says, invites violence. And what does Utah do in the bank? He shows weakness like a motherfucker, actively questioning Bodhi's decisions in front of everyone. It seems quite likely that the discord between the robbers helps give the off-duty cop not just the moxie but also the opening he needs. And it the bloodshed begins.
Of course Utah is only in that bank because he lets Bodhi steamroll him at his own home that morning. Why is Utah even at home? He knows that Bodhi has his address - the whole gang showed up uninvited in the past! At the very least Utah should be crashing at Pappas’ place, maybe shacking up in a hotel - usually undercover cops don’t go into hiding like that, but they also don’t usually give out their actual home address to felons. They usually set up apartments as fronts. Utah’s too stupid to do that.
After all of his bad decisions, Utah makes one final terrible one - he tells Pappas that they can’t shoot or arrest Bodhi. Bodhi, in a very Bond villain move, has kidnapped Taylor and will have her killed if he doesn’t personally retrieve her. Utah, who has already allowed himself to get way too personally involved in the case, now forces Pappas into a situation where the older (and frankly, smarter) cop gets ambushed and shotgunned to death. It’s gruesome. It’s the result of a federal agent who is doing his job badly.
With all of these fuck ups behind him, Utah’s decision to let Bodhi take that one final wave at Bell Beach almost seems reasonable. It’s as if Utah has realized that every time he makes a decision he gets someone killed, so why not make one last bad decision and get the bad guy killed? At the end of the movie an old cop and combat veteran is dead, a young hoodlum who could have been rehabilitated is dead, a heroic off-duty police officer is dead, and a gang of expert, non-violent criminals have all met their terrible, bloody fates instead of being brought to justice. Only Johnny Utah and Taylor still stand, and when Utah throws his badge into the ocean at the end we can only see this as a happy ending. One less bad federal agent is on the streets, threatening us all.