It would be wrong to say that Jan de Bont’s 1994 film Speed is a smart movie. Like just about any action movie from the 1990s, it requires supremely skilled stunt work and a healthy suspension of disbelief just to get into the neighborhood of plausibility. But once it gets there, this movie establishes itself as just about the smartest picture in that neighborhood, and it cooks with gas from opening credits to closing. That’s what made it the biggest surprise hit of the decade.
And make no mistake: this film was a surprise. Other action movies released in 1994 include Steven Seagal’s famous bomb On Deadly Ground, Jean-Claude van Damme’s big-budget exercises in buffoonery Timecop and Street Fighter, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ludicrous hit True Lies. Speed has nothing in common with any of those films: its hero is an everyday cop with no martial-arts skills, it has absolutely no influence from John Woo, and its budget was about half of what Schwarzenegger could command at the time.
Instead, Speed’s main weapon is what all of those films lack: a cunning screenplay. The story of LAPD SWAT team member Jack Traven (Reeves) and the mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) who wires a bus to explode if it drops below 50 miles per hour was originally written by Graham Yost, but Yost has since said that 99 percent of the film’s dialogue was written by Joss Whedon, at the time a mostly unknown script doctor. Among the many moves that he is credited for is the decision not to make Traven a wisecrack artist in the vein of Die Hard‘s John McClane. To the extent that Reeves has any weapons as an actor, his best weapon is an earnest vulnerability that is completely undone any time he tries to play “cynical” or “snarky.” Traven gets one joke at the beginning (“The basement”), and a joke at the end that doubles as the film’s very worst line (“He lost his head”). In between, he’s as sincere as you can get, which plays to Reeves’ strengths.
The action sequences around these characters are no surprise; this film is fast and loose and rarely obeys the laws of science. This is a movie in which a municipal bus jumps over a 50-foot-wide bridge, after all. But it’s amazing what Jan de Bont, the celebrated cinematographer of films like Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October making his directing debut, is able to do with a budget that was less than half of what True Lies had. This movie is the realest-looking movie you’ll ever find in which a bus jumps over a 50-foot-wide bridge. The use of an actual Los Angeles city bus is never cheated – it even carries the cheesy local advertisements that a city bus would have – and while the driving scenes may not have been at 50 mph all the time, the movie never cheats on the promise of its title.
The biggest surprise of them all was Sandra Bullock. Although she had been grinding out a career for almost a decade by then, Speed turned her into one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood overnight, and the recognition was well-deserved. Her performance effectively straddles the line between “tough and competent” and “how a normal person would act if thrown into a wild action-flick scenario.” She nullifies the goofiness and absurdity of your average action picture in a way that Reeves can’t do and Hopper isn’t supposed to do. The British film critic Mark Kermode [http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/markkermode/2009/07/sandrabullock_240709.html]has said of Bullock that “it’s impossible not to love her and yet she makes rotten film after rotten film after rotten film,” and Speed is maybe the most ideal example of this phenomenon: no matter how conventional or Hollywood-cheesy the movie may get, she keeps it moving forward and keeps the audience invested in it.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Speed is that it proved surprisingly difficult to imitate. While Die Hard spawned a legion of “our hero is alone against a bunch of terrorists while trapped inside a __________” movies, Speed’s formula was not so extensible. Jason Statham’s wildly successful Crank (his adrenaline has to stay high or his heart will stop!) came so many years later that it hardly feels like a rip-off; beyond that, the examples are fairly dire, such as the sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control (this already-slow-moving boat can’t slow down!) or the Cuba Gooding Jr. disaster Chill Factor (these extremely boring characters have to keep a bomb cold or it will explode!). Speed was an action film which broke the mold with such force that it was nearly impossible to reassemble. That why’s it’s not at all surprising that the movie is a ton of fun.
Reviewed by Mark Young