Add up all the elements that come together in this movie and it seems destined for failure: A first-time director helming an overblown summer action flick about a bus that can’t slow down or it will blow up, starring the guy who played Ted Logan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the guy who played Harry Dunne from Dumb and Dumber, and a completely unknown actress named Sandra Bullock. And let’s not forget some of the movies that were competing with Speed for moviegoers’ pocketbooks during the summer of 1994: James Cameron’s True Lies, a little flick from Disney you might have heard of called The Lion King, and let’s not forget a movie about a box of chocolates that blew the doors off the box office. Yes, it seems Speed was destined for obscurity in the Wal-Mart bargain bin even before it went into production.
And yet, in a feat that defied all expectations, Speed blew into multiplexes with the force of a runaway subway car and took cineplex patrons entirely by surprise. Jan de Bont’s “Die Hard on a bus” concept is a mix of incredible action setpieces, tight direction, and solid dialog thanks to some script doctoring by Joss Wheedon. It’s a classic action hero movie we just don’t see anymore, pitting one man against impossible odds and a hilariously insane villain mastermind. Throw in all kinds of explosions and sassy female lead and you’ve got a recipe for a good old-fashioned summer blockbuster. And perhaps that’s what makes Speed so darn good: you get exactly what you expect–nothing more, nothing less.
Things start off exactly as they should: with a tense elevator rescue scene that introduces us to the bad guy Howard Payne (played to the hilt by the late great Dennis Hopper) and the hero Jack Travern (Reeves), and perfectly explains Payne’s bad-guy motivation as clearly as if they were fingerpainted on a piece of posterboard. Payne wants $3.7 million in cash, and wants it now. If he doesn’t get it, people will die. Since the movie poster shows an airborne bus escaping a massive explosion, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the elevator rescue will succeed and the bad guy will continue doing nefarious deeds until he gets his money. Turns out the very next day, as Reeves is going about his regular-dude business like getting coffee and meeting average friendly LA citizens, Payne sets another plan in motion (har!) involving a busload of passengers that will explode if the bus goes below 50 miles per hour. And the only one who can save the day? If I have to tell you, you’re clearly not paying attention.
What follows is a series of increasingly implausible destruction scenes as the bus, driven by regular-chick Annie Porter (Bullock) after the real driver is shot, careens through all manner of urban obstacles like traffic jams, parked cars, road barricades, and even a 50-foot high ramp bridge. Just as crazy as the scenarios are, though, what’s even more amazing is that it all works thanks to Keanu Reeves–it’s like the man genuinely, honestly believes in the character he’s playing. And his utter commitment to this overblown ‘splode-fest actually engages the audience all the more, not to mention the chemistry between him and Bullock, who completely upended the tired stereotype of hapless action movie heroines with her role as the unwitting bus driver. I don’t know if they got any sort of nomination for best onscreen couple, but they certainly deserved it.
Speed is not to be taken seriously, but it is without a doubt one of the most entertaining popcorn-style action flicks you’ll find.
Last 5 posts by Simon R.
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