Keanu Reeves' first outing as an action hero coasts the transition from valley dope by having him go undercover as a surfer. His mission, to bust The Ex-Presidents, a gang of thrill-seeking bank robbers. When the identity of the criminals is guessed from their tan lines, its clear that maximum velocity action wins out over plot.
The hinted spirituality of the film is plainly silly, but it's quickly swallowed by the undertow of crashing spectacle. In hurtling point-of-view shots, the standout scene sees Johnny Utah (Reeves) chase a Reagan-masked villain over car bonnets, and through yards and alleys. Later the confusion of betrayal is worked into the adrenaline rush of skydiving.
Fresh from "Ghost", Swayze brings an idealistic innocence that avoids self-parody to the character of beach philosopher, and Utah's mentor, Bhodi. Thankfully, any excess is tempered by Gary Busey's world-weary cop, Angelo Pappas, a gravelly film stereotype as old as Hollywood itself. He has a great line in insults, and deserves his own vehicle.
Further cynicism about the implied enlightenment of extreme sports comes from Lori Petty's Tyler, but despite the rare presence of a female director, she is hastily sidelined in favour of testosterone-fuelled antics whenever the opportunity arises.
James Cameron is credited as executive producer, and the film bears a strong resemblance to his best work, but Bigelow deserves merit for crafting the film in such a way that its evident weaknesses do not stop it from being one hell of a ride. It is sad that in the decade since, she has done little to follow it up.