‘Speed’ at 30 – Review

‘Speed’ at 30 – Review

Speed (1994)
Director: Jan de Bont
Screenwriter: Graham Yost
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, Joe Morton and Jeff Daniels

When Speed opened in the summer of 1994 at the number one spot at the box office, beating out the highly anticipated sequel to City Slickers, City Slickers: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, the action thriller’s surprise success marked a turning point in the careers of its filmmakers and stars. It was the directorial debut of Jan de Bont, then known for his cinematography work on Lethal Weapon, Basic Instinct and Die Hard, and served as the catapult that launched both Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves into superstardom. The film earned critical acclaim too, and eventually went on to win two Academy Awards for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound. 30 years later, Speed is regarded as one of the greatest action films ever made.

After LAPD officer Jack Travern (Keanu Reeves) and his partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) thwart bomber Howard Payne’s (Dennis Hopper) attempt to extort $3.7million by holding an elevator full of people hostage, all seems right in the world. The good guys won and the bad guy blew himself up. But Payne is still alive, and he re-emerges with an even more insane plan to get the money he feels he’s owed by using Jack’s unwavering desire to save people against him. “Pop quiz, hot shot: 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?” What follows this iconic riddle is a high stakes game of cat and mouse, as Jack and the passengers, including Annie (Sandra Bullock), who must navigate the bus through freeways and city streets without losing speed, try to outsmart Payne and get everyone to safety before it all goes boom.

Watching Speed is like being on a rollercoaster, each twist and turn perfectly calibrated for maximum thrills. Even though the movie is essentially one action set piece after another for nearly two hours straight, none of it ever feels monotonous because of de Bont’s keen sense of pacing, his camera constantly moving and energized, aided by Marc Mancina’s anxious, adrenaline-pumping score. There is something tactile about the action in Speed, with its seamless blend of special and visual effects, making it nearly impossible to tell the difference between a real bus flying off a ramp and a miniature one. The film’s use of matte paintings is also especially effective. Speed is truly a feat of action filmmaking.

Towards the end of the film, Payne monologues to Jack that “a bomb is made to explode.” The film itself seems to agree with this as it is constantly hurtling towards bigger and better explosions and increasingly over-the-top life or death situations. Still, Speed never takes itself too seriously. Moments of suspense and danger are juxtaposed with equal doses of humor, like when Annie accidently swerves and hits a baby carriage, only to discover that it’s actually filled with cans, or when she sheepishly tells Jack that her license was recently suspended for, what else, speeding. These moments of levity cut through the tension, offering us a chance to catch our breath.

Aside from these technical achievements, Speed wouldn’t be half the movie it is without characters that feel grounded and real; that give us something to hold onto amidst the chaos and spectacle. Even characters who only show up for a few minutes, like the passengers trapped in the elevator or the owner of the Jaguar (Glenn Plumber) Jack commandeers, are memorable, making the world feel lived in and unique. The supporting cast is rounded out by an array of familiar faces from film and TV, like ‘Scandal’s’ Joe Morton, who plays Lt. Mac McMahon, and ‘Succession’s’ Alan Ruck, who plays the well-meaning but oblivious tourist Stephens who probably didn’t expect his first visit to LA to include getting on a bus rigged to explode. Jeff Daniels is a standout as Harry, a bomb expert whose cynical worldview exquisitely compliments Jack’s steadfast optimism, his the most gut-wrenching performance in the film.

At the center of it all is Keanu Reeves, who plays Jack with an intense yet quiet confidence from the moment he appears on screen, the camera whirling around him as he pulls on a bullet proof vest. The camera tracks him up the stairs of the office building where the workers are trapped in the elevator – he’s casually chewing gum, silently assessing his surroundings. The way Reeves carries himself in this film, his subtle physicality, tells us exactly who Jack is without him having to say anything at all. He’s clearly resourceful and great under pressure, but also exceedingly polite, respectfully calling Annie ma’am until he learns her name. Above all, we trust him. He’s the guy that’s going to get us out of this.

Reeves is clearly at home in the action genre, and while there is now no doubt that he will go down in movie history as one of the genre’s greatest stars, audiences saw him in a much different light in the early 90s. Before Speed, Reeves was known for either being a dufus, thanks to starring in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or for taking on what Roger Ebert described as “dreamy, sensitive roles” like in River’s Edge and My Own Private Idaho. Though his role as FBI agent Johnny Utah in the 1991 crime drama Point Break was certainly a stepping stone in his ascension to action star, it was Speed that truly solidified his status as a leading man in Hollywood, and where the genesis of Neo and John Wick can be found. With Reeves, audiences were given a taste of a different kind of hero, one that didn’t fall in line with the kind of hyper-masculine, muscled-up stars that dominated the 80s, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

Sandra Bullock and Dennis Hopper provide the perfect bookends to Reeves’s performance. As Annie, Bullock is relatable yet capable, and she and Reeves have instant chemistry. It’s easy to see why Speed put her on the map. Dennis Hopper is one of the greatest talents to come out of the New Hollywood Movement, with credits in Rebel Without a Cause, Apocalypse Now and Easy Rider, which he also directed, and his commitment to being as batshit crazy as possible in Speed is part of what makes the film’s more insane elements work so well. He thrives off chaos, finds catharsis in explosions; he’s the perfect foil to someone like Jack who, as Payne says, spends his entire life “trying to stop the bomb from becoming.” What makes Payne such an intriguing and terrifying villain, though, is that he’s almost right.

Speed serves as a reminder of what makes a movie unforgettable. Its attention to character dynamics and development make it more than just spectacle. At the heart of Speed is a really good story – a quintessential 90s blockbuster that defined an era and helped to usher in a new kind of action hero.

Score: 22/24

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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