– Summary –
Director : Jan de Bont
Year Of Release : 1994
Principal Cast : Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels, Joe Morton, Alan Ruck, Richard Lineback, Carlos Carrasco.
Approx Running Time : 116 Minutes
Synopsis: When the LA police department learns that there’s a bomb on a city bus, designed to arm when the bus goes over 50 miles per hour, adrenaline-junkie cop Jack Traven boards said bus and so begins a desperate race against time to disarm the device before the bus comes to a stop and explodes.
What we think : Thrilling, blockbusting action film delivers a top-notch white-knuckle ride through the streets of Los Angeles, with lead stars Keanu and Sandra having wonderful chemistry to aide the story along. de Bont directs the film like a boss, filling it with stunts and other highly improbably action to keep audiences riveted. The premise is elegantly simple, and the the script is a rip-roaring adventure from start to explosive end.
The simple things in life are often the best.
Speed, a mid-90’s action thriller that came along with virtually no expectation and blew everyone away, still remains one of the best action films of the last thirty years by a wide margin. The reason for this is three-fold. First, the premise of the film; a premise so simple and uncluttered with extravagance it felt – and still feels – like a breath of fresh air over more complex thrillers. Second, the chemistry between the two main leads, Reeves and Bullock, is terrific – there’s a bond between them that no director could possibly fake. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the direction from Jan de Bont is rock solid, focused solely on the story and the bristling narrative, unlike follow-up efforts like The Haunting and Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life. Speed is like a wet slap in the face on a cold day; it opens up the sinuses and gets the blood pumping with a skill most “blockbusters” in the new millennium struggle to accomplish. Revisiting the film recently, I was just amazed at how crisp it is, just how simple things are in terms of story and character. Speed isn’t simplistic, no sir, but the lack of frivolousness or look-at-me extravagance is a blessing to these jaded, cynical critics eyes.
SWAT team members Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) are among a task force called to a high-rise bomb threat in downtown Los Angeles. After rescuing a group of people from an elevator designed as a decoy, Jack and harry face off against the unnamed bomber (Dennis Hopper) before he detonates an explosive device and escapes. Several months later, after recovering from their injuries and reciveing medals of commendation from the city, the bomber returns to taunt Jack; Jack learns that the bomber has planted a device on a city bus, designed to arm once the bus reached 50 miles per hour (110 km/hr for our metric readers). The second part of the plot is that if the bus then drops below 50 miles per hour, the bomb will detonate. Racing across the city, Jack boards the bus by jumping from a moving vehicle, before assuming control of the situation. When the driver of the bus is shot, another passenger, Annie (Sandra Bullock) takes the drivers seat and together, she and Jack navigate through the streets of LA to a place where their speed will not be an issue. Meanwhile, Harry and the rest of the LA police force track down the location of the bomber, who has bigger plans for the city than just terrorizing the transport system.
The trailer made Speed the kind of film no-one could pass up. “There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it goes off. What do you do?” The hook is so simple, and the result is bottled lightning. Jan de Bont, a renowned cinematographer who’d worked on films such as Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October and Lethal Weapon 3 (among others) certainly had enough experience with action films to transition from DOP to Director. His pedigree was exemplary, and the expectation was high. With influences from films like Runaway Train and Silver Streak, Graham Yost’s screenplay (internet info has it that Joss Whedon also massaged the script, but remained uncredited) is a muscular, accessible and high-octane roller-coaster of action beats and 90’s humor, souped up on the most unlikely of settings – an inner city bus. Yost pared back complexity in order to keep the story brisk and free of convoluted extravagance; there’s no Has Gruber terrorist plot here, although Dennis Hopper’s arch-mad bomber character certainly has sprinklings of justifiable motivation to prod audience empathy. Jack Trevan is a stock-character cop, he’s cliched to the point of near-incredulity: the man either has a death wish or is an adrenaline junkie of the first order; he’s superhuman and indestructible, just the way we like our 90’s heroes. Martin Riggs and John McLane would have been proud of this film, that’s for sure.
Speed manages to do something not too many movies accomplish, with great skill: it’s an ensemble piece that feels like there’s only two people in it. Keanu Reeves, who had something of a career high during the mid-to-late 90’s, sweats and clenches his way through this film with the knowledge that he’s in on the joke; sure, he’s no great actor, but this role (along with The Matrix’s Neo) seems custom built for his particular talents. Sandra Bullock, miles away from her Oscar performances and dreck like All About Steve, is cute-as-a-button sweet as Annie, with the innocent insouciance of a pre-millennium girl who just happens to know how to drive a bus (don’t they all?). The screen chemistry between Bullock and Reeves is terrific, and they play off each other well. It’s a shame they ruined that chemistry by making The Lakehouse about a decade later. Dennis Hopper, as the mad bomber, is certainly mad as hell, and his motivations in the end add up to make him a credible character and screen villain. Hopper’s wild-eyed portrayal in this, which seems a lot like many of his other wide-eyed crazy characters during his career, captured the zeitgeist of the moment and became the poster boy for fallible human villains. He breezes through this film completely upstaging Reeves, which is not really that hard considering Hopper is actually capable of… an emotion. Jeff Daniels is solid as Jack’s partner, Harry, and he has some of the films better lines. The commuters trapped on That Bus, including Alan Ruck in a supporting role, are all equally benign characters, although the sense of camaraderie they have with Jack as the plot unfolds becomes quite palpable. Look out for a scene-chewing Joe Morton, better known to audiences as the guy who invented Skynet in Terminator 2, as Jack’s boss, who berates everyone around him with the subtlety of explosive diarrhea.
Jan de Bont’s direction is key to this films’ success, for without him, it would all fall in a heap. de Bont recognizes that by keeping the film moving at a brisk pace, offering tidbits of character development throughout and ensuring that the viewer never really knows where the next surprise is coming from, the whole enterprise will be more entertaining than not. The film opens with a terrific 20 minute set-piece inside a skyscraper, with Jack and Harry involved in a harrowing elevator rescue, before the requisite breath-before-the-next-set-piece. Unlike many action films, however, which transition from action beat to action beat with predictable slower moments in between, Speed only has about half the narrative pauses within its taut 116 minute run-time. Once Jack boards that bus, the films pacing is relentless, as the story moves at high speed to its inevitable showdown conclusion. The script allows us to get to know Jack and Annie, and to a lesser extent Harry and the bus passengers, through their dialogue as the film progresses – it’s amazing how well written dialogue can impart as much information as somebody “explaining” what’s going on does – and it’s here that Speed excels. The characters might be somewhat generic for audiences today, but de Bont never allows us the time to figure that out as we’re watching (sure, nearly 20 years after the film premiered we might see it for what it is, but at the time we were more focused on the bus jumping that gap in the highway) as he lurches helter-skelter through the city.
If there is any significant deficiency in the film, it’s the ending. The ending of Speed, which sees Jack and Annie trapped in a train doing exactly the same thing as the bus, has a stupefyingly crappy “fight” between Jack and the Bomber on the roof of the train; not only is it poorly filmed (plenty of rear projection scenery here, folks), but it just lacks the fist-pumping throwdown we’d really like for someone who’s put us through so much. And the way in which the train bursts out of the underground tunnel and onto a city street is just gapingly inane that is almost – almost, mind you – undoes all the good work of the previous hour or so. Yeah, it’s exciting in a way, but the as the scene progresses and the logic of the film begins to unravel, you get the sense that even de Bont looked at this in post production and thought “I’d better end this quick”… so he does. Transferring the “speed” concept from the bus to a train smacks of stretching credibility beyond the films’ internal logic; perhaps had they left the train element for a sequel, it might have worked, but to try and get both elements into the same film seems too much. In any case, it does provide a “not over yet” aspect that, on reflection, is quite cool to throw into the mix, and I guess it works to a point.
Speed’s raison d’etre is simply to entertain, and it does that really, really well. The star power of Reeves and Bullock is one that will have film junkies salivating these days, even if they were relatively untested at the time, and the ripping script from Yost delivers the same kind of gut-punch thrill Die Hard did five years earlier. Jan de Bont would go on to direct the equally thrilling (if entirely illogical) Twister, before his career spiraled into oblivion on the back of The Haunting and the terrible Tomb Raider sequel. Speed remains his defining film, a directorial debut that is both potent and thrilling. As a modern-day blockbuster, even by comparison to films which would come later, it stands the test of time and remains an utterly competent, extra-remarkable genre entry that deserves the be held in the same esteem as Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.