Tagline: Get Ready for Rush Hour.
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
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 just about 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, a movie in which he played a dumb airhead of no real range. Even 1991‘s Point Break, a wonderful action movie in its own right, failed to fully unlock his potential. It was an inspired bit of casting by a young Kathyrn Bigelow, Reeves’ soporific, borderline-naïve demeanour perfect for a role that would ultimately be overshadowed by Patrick Swayze, and was hardly the catapult for Hollywood domination. Following Speed, Reeves 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 and banished the actor to sci-fi purgatory — at least temporarily. His performance in The Matrix aside, Reeves was a notoriously wooden actor in his younger days, and you have to beleieve that if it wasn’t for this movie’s success, the man who would become Neo may have long-since faded into cinematic obscurity, and who else could have portrayed the eternally confused cyber warrior with such bland suitability?
Speed is another in a long line of Die Hard clones to come out of the early ’90s, and it is easily one of the best. That’s not to say it isn’t downright ridiculous, a fact that has become more evident thanks to a genre that has slipped further into knowing self-parody, but it still ticks all the boxes. The movie’s frenetic action sequences still hold up today, and then there is the often mesmerising Dennis Hopper in one of his finest OTT roles, his crazed bomb nut providing the perfect foil for Reeves as he attempts to hold the spotlight along with a host of underdeveloped support. But this is an action movie, right? Who cares about character development? 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 of himself, the bandanna-sporting Latino who assumes that a cop would chase down a passenger-filled bus on a busy highway in pursuit of his narrow ass. Die Hard had those characters too—Hart Bochner as self-serving ‘white knight’ Harry Ellis being a prime example—but there’s only so much of the same formula one can stomach, and without the human relatability of the genre’s very best efforts, it can all seem just a little thin.
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 rather 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 (Sandra 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 soon-to-be-unemployed passengers perhaps five minutes until detonation. Then you have homeless old ladies pushing prams full of canned goods to look out for, and you know how common they are during rush hour. To add to our heroine’s woes, 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.
Speed doesn’t quite manage the humour of contemporaries such as Die Hard With a Vengeance — ironic since Daniels would go on to star in hit comedy Dumb and Dumber just a few months later, smashing all expectations by holding his own against one Jim Carrey, who was such a comic phenomenon back in ’95 that people had him pegged as the best of all time until The Truman Show redefined him as an actor of a much higher pedigree. On the whole, the movie lacks the witty delivery of its peers, and some comedy sequences — such as the one in which Traven confiscates the Porsche of a decidedly two-dimensional African American — is crying out for a little Bruce Willis.
Speed does, however, deliver thrills and spills in spades — so many that the comedy almost seems peripheral. Reeves gives it his all in spite of his lack of relatability, and just look at where he is now in the world of action movies. The actor has come a hell of a long way, and it is testament to his drive and willingness to develop that he is now considered up there with the very best. Much of Speed‘s action prowess can be attributed to director Jan De Bont, who had worked with both John McTiernan and Richard Donner as cinematographer on Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 3 respectively, and much like his contemporaries he orchestrates events as if the camera were a rocket launcher. The movie is an explosion from start to finish.
In the end, Speed will mostly be remembered for launching the mainstream career of an unlikely action colossus, but in terms of pacing and smash-mouth presentation, De Bont delivers arguably the best pure action vehicle of the decade.
Pop quiz, hotshot. You have a red-hot screenplay and you’ve promised producers you will gross roughly five times what they invested. What do you do?
You hire Keanu Reeves and cast him in the lead role.
Taking his feud with Payne 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.
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 its impossible leap of faith. The bus makes it of course, maintaining its speed even upon impact. Fortune really does favour the brave!
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!’