SpeedAdd 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.

Speed: Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves

"Did you get the license plate number of that explosion?" "Whoa."

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.


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Bram Stoker’s Dracula

BSD posterIn one of the most important chapters in Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” Lucy Westenre tells the story of how she received three marriage proposals in one day. We gain a chuckle by reading it, but we also learn how good Lucy’s heart is and how kind and humble she is, as well as see the character of her suitors.

But there is a fourth man in Lucy’s life, a certain Count we all know. He visits her at night, and she begins to be found in the morning at the brink of death, almost totally drained of blood. Her three suitors rally around her and, with the help of Dr. Van Helsing’s transfusion equipment, literally pour their life into her. So it goes for many pages; the Count steals her life away by night; the men who love her exhaust themselves by day in a desperate battle to save her life. Van Helsing trims her room with garlic. The Texan suitor, Quincy Morris, patrols the grounds around her home all night. But the Count’s craft is too great and Lucy finally succumbs. By this point the characters are sufficiently developed that the reader feels their loss almost as acutely as they do.

But of course, Lucy becomes a vampire. She preys on local children for awhile until once again confronted by her suitors and Van Helsing. Dr. Seward, narrating this part of the story, describes “the thing in the coffin” as a “mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity.” They put a stake through her heart, and watch her turn back to the woman they once knew.  There follows a beautiful paragraph about redemption, eternal life and contrasting inner beauty with the perverse eternal youth of a vampiress.

Would that I had sufficient space to fully describe the literary riches in Stoker’s masterpiece, but that will have to do. Imagine then, my disappointment at Francis Ford Coppula’s attempt to film “Dracula.” To do justice to the book would have required a long movie; probably around three hours. Coppula seems determined to cut it off at two, so that the movie, even in its best moments, is nothing more than a watered-down version of the book. To make matters worse, Coppula crams in a sub plot in which Mina Murray dates Dracula while her fiancé struggles across Europe. Taking a page from “The Mummy” Coppula seems to imply that Mina is a sort of reincarnation of a bride of the historical Dracula. The movie never explains this, however. In fact, the editing of this film is downright schizophrenic. The story I told above takes all of 10 minutes to fly by in the film, and begins with a shot of Lucy lying on a park bench, apparently being raped by a werewolf (I can only assume this is Dracula in some other form, but this too is never explained). Far from being Stoker’s figure of “sweet purity,” Coppula’s Lucy is essentially a 19th century valley girl. Seward and Quincy are barely given any screen time, and with no back-story, Arthur’s lines about how he would give the last drop of his blood to save Lucy are as flat and unbelievable as anything in Hollywood. Even her two death scenes seem insignificant.

drac, mina

Gary Oldman sucks in "Dracula."

To be sure, a proper film version of “Dracula” would get slow at times, bogged down in dialogue and character development, but it was precisely these things that made the book great. It takes the reader through the loss, the grief, the struggle and the eventual triumph of the seven main characters. If we didn’t feel their bravery, their love for each other, and their iron faith, reading the accompanying horror story would have been a waste of time. Perversely, the only genuine affection in Coppula’s film seems to be between Mina and Dracula.

In typical Hollywood fashion, Coppula tries to compensate for this lack of substance with spectacle. Disembodied shadows creep across walls, water flows uphill and blood flows out of inanimate objects for no reason. This entertains for a few minutes, but it’s a poor substitute for a story. It might even be scary, if any of it looked real, or if there was any reason to care.

Coppula’s film is to Stoker’s novel what a vampire is to the person he or she was in life: the same thing, except stripped of its soul, its passion, its humanity, and marked by lurid signs of cruelty and bloodlust.

The book

The movie

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