Director: Jan De Bont
Writers: Graham Yost
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels, Joe Morton, Alan Ruck, Glenn Plummer, Richard Lineback, Beth Grant, Hawthorne James, Carlos Carrasco, David Kriegel, Natsuko Ohama, Daniel Villarreal, Simone Gad
15 | 1hr 56min | Action
Budget: $25,000,000 (estimated)
Pop quiz, hotshot.
There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50mph, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?
You write a screenplay of an ever increasing implausibility.
In a year of blockbusters which included The Lion King and Forest Gump, Speed was one of the highest grossing movies of 1994, and one of the most well received. As an action vehicle the film delivers on every level. We have a wonderfully over-the-top psychopath, a bunch of well-meaning morals upheld with flip hypocritical violence, a series of breathtaking action sequences, and a cute damsel with enough determination to keep those pesky feminists at bay.
We also have Keanu Reeves.
Prior to Speed, Reeves was probably best known for his performance as Ted in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in which he played a dumb airhead of no real range. Following Speed he received a Golden Raspberry for his eponymous role in the laughable Johnny Mnemonic, which made a mockery of the William Gibson short of the same name. His performance in The Matrix aside, Reeves is a notoriously wooden actor, and you have to say that if it wasn’t for this movie’s success the man who would become Neo may have long since faded into obscurity, and who else could have portrayed the eternally confused cyber warrior with such bland suitability?
Speed is not a bad movie, but that’s not to say it isn’t downright ridiculous, a fact that has become more evident in years gone by. Contrarily, the action sequences still hold up today with editing that is fittingly frantic, and of course there is the often mesmerising Dennis Hopper in perhaps one of his finest roles, his crazed bomb nut providing enough to mask the inadequacies of a dozen dummy action heroes. That is credit to him as an actor however, because the characterisation is painfully thin.
But this is an action movie, right? Who cares about characterisation? I hear you. But with a few minor tweaks the movie could have been more than the ethnic sidekick spouting off ill-conceived buzz words, the spineless coward who only thinks about himself, the bandanna wearing Latino assuming that a cop would chase down a passenger-filled bus on a busy highway in pursuit of his narrow ass. With little or no effort this could have been turned into something akin to the original Die Hard. And who wouldn’t want to see that?
The story itself is worthy of John McClane at his most reckless. Howard Payne (Hopper) is an ex-cop with a rather elaborate chip on his shoulder; a bomb expert who feels undervalued and short-changed. His first attempt at gratification is thwarted by pretty boy Jack Traven (Reeves) and his not-so-self-assured partner Harry, played by a seriously miscast Jeff Daniels. Robbed of his finest hour, Payne concocts another elaborate scenario in the time it takes Traven to eat breakfast, and suddenly his maniacal endeavours take on a personal nature, with Jack becoming the main pawn in his game of highway chess.
After the driver of the ill-fated bus is wounded during an impromptu melee, happy-go-lucky Annie (Bullock) is tasked with steering the vehicle while the vengeful Payne delights in teasing our monotonous hero. You might think it a dumb move to use a driver of no experience with so many lives at stake, but would the identity of the driver really make a difference in this case? If those in jeopardy were on an open road then perhaps there would be a slim chance of keeping such a mammoth vehicle above 50, but this is Los Angeles during rush hour, a place of traffic lights and workmen and miles of honking drivers, giving our offensively trite supporting cast perhaps five minutes until detonation.
Furthermore, the insatiable Payne is watching everything they do, and if the cops attempt to rescue even one of the hostages there will be a particularly large crater somewhere on the Los Angeles Highway. All Jack has to do now is figure out a way to get everyone off the bus without being seen, while maintaining their allotted speed, and all before their giant carriage runs out of petrol.
Pop quiz, hotshot. You have an implausible idea for a screenplay but you’ve promised producers you will gross five times what they put into the movie. What do you do?
You hire Keanu Reeves and cast him in the lead role.
After taking their feud from a highway bus to the top of an underground train, an exhausted Jack finally seems done for. Fortunately for him, he spots an overhead light approaching, and while his antagonist talks the usual smack he puts incredible faith in its decapitating capabilities, emerging from the battle without a speck of blood to show for it. Incredible!
Most Absurd Moment
With a thirty foot gap in the highway approaching, the chances of maintaining 50mph in a 2-tonne vehicle seem incredibly slim, especially since that vehicle has a top speed of around 80. Jack has a plan however, distracting the driver by diving on her and smothering her with a hug moments before the bus takes the impossible leap of faith. The bus makes it of course, maintaining its speed even upon impact.
Most Absurd Dialogue
While wrestling with Jack on top of a train, the egomaniacal Payne delivers his latest round of self-aggrandising diatribe.
Howard Payne: ‘I’m smarter than you, Jack! I’m smarter! I’m smarter!
Jack Traven: (after decapitating his foe). Yeah? Well, I’m TALLER!’
A textbook thrill ride of gloriously hammy acting and acerbic one-liners, this is a minor masterpiece of slick-stunt mayhem. With a few tweaks of characterisation, this may have fallen into seminal action territory, but perhaps those inadequacies are what make the movie so endurable, much like the leading man himself.