Speed (1994)

Speed (1994)

Thrills never came faster (or as much on a bus) as they did in Speed one of the greatest action films of the 90s

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Jack Traven), Dennis Hopper (Howard Payne), Sandra Bullock (Annie Porter), Jeff Daniels (Harry Temple), Joe Morton (Lt Herb McMahon), Alan Ruck (Doug Stephens), Glenn Plummer (Maurice), Beth Grant (Helen), Hawthorne James (Sam), Carlos Carrasco (Ortiz)

For most of the 90s, nearly every action film made was promoted as “Die Hard in/on an X”. We had determined, maverick heroes fighting alone against the odds on trains, planes, mountains, aircraft carriers, Alcatraz… You name it, it was Die Hard-ed. But which one was the best? It might just be Die Hard on a Bus – or rather Speed. A never-ending rush of propulsive excitement, Speed is one of the most entertaining films of the 90s. It’s possibly the best high-concept actioner ever made and if you don’t come out of it with a sort of daffy grin on your face there’s something wrong with you.

“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?” And there’s the whole set-up right there. Detective Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) is the hotshot, who has already foiled mad bomber (Dennis Hopper’s scheme to hold a lift full of hostages for ransom. Now, for round 2, he’s got to try and keep a bus moving over 50mph through the streets of Los Angeles. Helping him out is passenger Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) who takes the steering wheel, and best friend Detective Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) who’s trying to find the bomber. It’s pedal to the metal all the way.

The fact that Speed is as good as it is, is a miracle. Graham Yost’s original script had the bus not going above 20mph (it was called Minimum Speed – and sounds hilariously like the Father Ted spoof where Dougal was trapped on a milk float that couldn’t go below 5mph). It was set entirely on the bus and ended with it exploding into the Hollywood sign. The hero was a wise-cracking smart-ass John McClane type, the bomber was revealed to be his friend Harry and one of the passengers was a cowardly lawyer who met a grizzly end. Die Hard director John McTiernan passed on this unpromising mess, recommending his regular cinematographer Jan de Bont instead.

De Bont – in what remains the only good movie he directed – helped restructure the film into three acts: hostages in a falling lift, hostages in a speeding bus, hostages in an out-of-control subway train. Joss Whedon rewrote the dialogue (Yost generously attributes “98.9% of the dialogue” to Whedon). The bomber became a separate character – with the insane energy of Dennis Hopper behind him. Bullock’s part became a combination love interest and comic sidekick. And Keanu Reeves’ Jack Traven, from being a McClane knock-off, turned into an earnest, dedicated, insanely brave and determined police-officer. And that lawyer was turned into Alan Ruck’s out-of-his-depth wide-eyed tourist. Boom: suddenly, we had a film that felt a little unique.

From there, what made it work was the propulsive pace. An opening act with a lift in peril, sets up the race against time, perilous stakes and dangerous risks (powered by an effective strings and drums soundtrack by Mark Mancina). There is a perfectly poised battle of wits between Hopper’s mastermind bomber and Reeves’ cop. Split second decisions and acts of chance have life-saving consequences. The dialogue is just the right side of cracking wise, with enough earnestness to temper the spice. The whole first act makes a hell of a movie in itself. Like the best of the Bond pre-credit sequences, you could go home happy at the end of it – and having never even seen a bus.

But hang about because that bus is well worth waiting for. More wildly exciting than a one-vehicle chase scene has any right to be, de Bont brilliantly cranks the tension up and never lets go. You’ll grip the edge of your seat as Traven races through town and down the freeway to try and get to the bus before it hits that ominous 50mph – even though, of course, we know there is no chance of him succeeding. Because, after all, if he did Reeves wouldn’t need to jump from a car to a bus at 50mph. de Bont – a skilled cinematographer – has the camera duck and weave among the traffic so hard you’ll feel the g-force throwing you back in your seat.

That’s before we even have the bus itself charging through traffic, with the reluctant Annie at the wheel. Throwing itself through crowded streets, around hair-pin bends and over huge gaps in unbuilt freeways, the entire film is basically an opportunity to gorge yourself on an unlikely vehicle doing gripping stunts at insane speeds. We also get the peril of Jack’s attempts to defuse the bomb on the run – when, inevitably, the fuel tank is damaged the film has the wit enough for Annie to say “what, you felt you needed another challenge?”. It’s, frankly, exciting, expertly shot and edited stuff.

And it also works because the characters are lightly – but very warmly – sketched. Reeves – at the time still best known as “Dude”-ing his way through Bill & Ted – shaved his hair to look more like Hollywood’s idea of an action hero. But what makes him stand out is the sincerity, politeness and rather endearing determination to save lives and serve his community. It’s the trademark Reeves sweetness that has made countless action films afterwards work – he’s never an alpha male or a ‘damn the consequences’ maverick. Bullock became an overnight mega-star with a performance overflowing with charm and wisecracking girl-next-door vulnerability. No one did lip-smacking villiany like Hopper. Daniels is great and the bus was crammed with reliable character actors who craft people we care about from crumbs.

That and the relentless excitement of almost every scene. I’ll agree that the third act resolution on the speeding subway train effectively just re-treads elements of the first two acts. Is it any wonder that Speed 2 was such a disaster when even the original can’t go through less than two hours without repeating itself? But you won’t care, because if the film doesn’t have you firmly in its grip by then, there must be something wrong with you.

De Bont never again even got near the outstanding quality of this ultimate thrill ride. But then, when you’ve touched action-thriller perfection, does that matter? Speed is the best high-concept, Die Hard rip-off ever made – so much so that you feel a bit churlish mentioning that as part of its DNA. Superbly paced, totally gripping and guaranteed to leave you with a big cheesy grin on your face, I’ve seen it more times than I can count and still I feel floored by it. You’ll believe a bus can fly.

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