“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? WHAT DO YOU DO?”
Well, if you were audiences in 1994 you would flock theaters to check out this exciting sounding premise. You would marvel at cinematographer Jan de Bont’s first time in the directors chair. You would feel a bizarre sense of deja vu watching a truck speed down L.A. freeways on a movie screen after having just seen O.J. Simpson do the same thing on live television.
You would also watch Keanu Reeves star in his biggest crowd-pleasing hit since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. You would witness Dennis Hopper portray yet again another bad guy, a role he had a stranglehold on. AND you would become enamored by a cute and charismatic Sandra Bullock, who thanks to her co-starring role alongside Reeves and a bus in Speed would propel her to stardom.
Speed is such a stripped down actioner with such a simple premise that’s executed with such flair that it’s hard not to enjoy it. It all might be preposterous, but it’s consistency entertaining. It delivered exactly what it promised and what audiences wanted.
It’s broken into three action set pieces – an elevator rescue, the speeding bus and a train climax.
We’re immediately thrust into a tense scenario with passengers trapped in an elevator and demands made by Hopper’s Howard Payne to pay him some loot or he’ll blow it killing everyone inside it.
Cue the introduction of SWAT officer Jack Traven and his partner Harry Temple played by Jeff Daniels. Traven doesn’t like playing by the rules. Surprised?
An exciting elevator rescue commences ending with the passengers saved, Traven a hero and Payne presumed dead – or is he??? DUH!
If you’re looking for realism in your movies, you best bail on Speed immediately. I always thought it was funny how Dennis Hopper says it took him three years to plan his elevator scheme, but manages to execute his bus one in…what…a matter of months? That one would seem like it would take much more preparation – or at least be equal to his elevator plan.
Hopper pops back up with a new hurdle for our hero – that speeding bus. The targeted bus will be forced to keep speeding down highways until Hopper is paid off. Keanu hops on it, meets our frisky heroine Annie (Bullock) and away they go navigating traffic, sharp corners and highway gaps for the next forty minutes.
Watching Speed today it all holds up remarkably well! The stunts are just as thrilling and impressive as when it first came out. It’s refreshing to see old school stunts, crashes and explosions on display.
De Bont making his directing debut brings a real energy to this high-concept flick. The film has a sunny California sheen to it. There’s no dark moody lighting happening anywhere. It reinforces the idea that this is meant to be just a fun popcorn actioner and not to take it too seriously.
There’s not much room for fleshing out any of the characters. They’re all barebones and the movie doesn’t apologize for it. It’s all about the action, having Reeves look buff, Bullock be cute and going on an exciting ride.
De Bont keeps his camera consistently moving. It’s not jerky handheld that would befall many action movies that we see today, but the camera is smoothly running along catching glimpses of what we need to see and traveling alongside that bus. The way the action scenes are filmed helps keep up the momentum the film is all about.
Along with all the wires, speedometers, digital clock displays and bright buttons there’s plenty of ‘danger’ signs and road hazard colors dotted around. I always noticed a lot of ‘Caution’ signs and black and yellow safety stripes on display too. Really, they’re not hard to miss.
It’s like they made sure to incorporate plenty of orange cones, construction signs and warning lights on this road trip. All those visual cues we would associate with roadside hazards.
I imagine that was something the set designers planned. They created this ‘danger’ motif that runs throughout the movie. The first shot in the movie is a ‘Caution’ sign!
Maybe de Bont thought it would help add to the nail-biting danger that’s going down and just in case we weren’t aware that there’s going to be some exciting thrills happening, he visually reminds us with this danger palette. ‘Kids – Don’t Try This Stuff At Home!’.
Admittedly, there are some very hokey bits, such as Jeff Daniels as Keanu’s partner when he thinks he finally located Hopper. Did anyone really think that catching him was going to that easy? Or how about Hopper who is smart enough to put a camera on the bus, but doesn’t remove the big ‘Video Vision’ sticker on the side of it so we all know exactly what it is! So much for really disguising it.
I still giggle at how simplistic Hopper’s money drop off plays out.
The cops are instructed to drop the loot in a garbage can on a street corner. They have a tracker device on it, but for some reason don’t turn it on since it looks like no one has picked up the bag. It’s then our suspicious hero runs to the can, kicks it over and there’s this big cartoon-like hole under the can! It’s so silly! It looks like Bugs Bunny just ran off with the bag of cash!
For an actor who I think pretty much everyone agrees won’t be mistaken for ever giving a Laurence Oliver performance, Keanu has maintained a steady career thanks to some box office hits during every stage of his career. Bill and Ted, Point Break, Speed, The Matrix, now John Wick.
They’re his most popular films, that keep audiences entertained and keeps up his popularity. Those bigger movies of his are spaced out enough that they always manage to give him a boost when he desperately needs it.
I’m not sure what the ratio is with his box office hit movies that audiences buy tickets to compared to all the films he’s been in that are ignored and dismissed, but it’s got to be pretty high.
If you really look at his filmography and see what’s fallen in-between his crowd pleasing ‘hits’ it’s full of a lot of junk and a lot of movies that have been forgotten. I bet most don’t even know they exist.
I doubt the same number of Keanu fans who are waiting for him to do Bill & Ted Part 3 are watching him star in Destination Wedding.
I have to give him credit for at least mixing things up for himself though, regardless of whether the films he chooses are ever watched.
I predict after the John Wick movies play out he’ll go back to doing forgettable junk for awhile, they won’t get much if any reaction, they’ll continue to fill up his resume until some other genre flick comes along he’ll star in putting him back in the spotlight again.
Hopper…is well Hopper. He does what is needed. During this stage of his career Hopper was working a lot, but he really specialized in playing bad guys. I guess it was mainly due to his performance in Blue Velvet that made him a reliable choice when a villain was needed.
Those dastardly roles kept him busy, Waterworld, Red Rock West (one of my favorites), Boiling Point, Sunset Heat, the television show 24 and notoriously playing King Koopa in Super Mario Brothers.
There’s not much more to say about Bullock in this than what we all know. She’s cute, charming, charismatic. It’s not much of a role, but her casting makes you just like her Annie as soon as she shows up.
I remember I was already crushing on her since seeing her in The Vanishing and Demolition Man, but Speed was her big breakout role and signaled her arrival to audiences.
Speed has all that, plus it’s all complimented by a catchy score that keeps up the pace and makes it feel even more epic. It’s a really excellent score by Mark Mancinia. It compliments the action beautifully. To this day I still find myself humming those beating notes when something ‘speedy’ happens.
After working as a cinematographer for many years, Speed looked like it was going to make de Bont a popular goto director for actioners. It looked promising when he followed it up with the megahit Twister, but the bottom dropped out with the lousy Speed 2: Cruise Control in 1997.
At the time everyone was anxious for a Speed sequel, but that turned out to be a big mistake. It’s too bad. Even without Reeves returning, Bullock quickly became a big enough star to carry it on her own – had it been halfway decent.
Unfortunately, Speed 2: Cruise Control turned out to be one of the most disappointing sequels ever made. Reeves dodged the bullet, Bullock managed to survive it and it derailed de Bont’s directing career.
De bont’s directing climb vanished. He would only direct 1999’s The Haunting and 2003’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life. He hasn’t been back in the director’s chair since. I always think back and wonder what might have been when it comes to de Bont.
Somewhat surprisingly I’ve never heard any talk of a Speed remake. Not that I think it would be any better anyway. De Bont did as much as I think could be done with such a silly premise. He turned it into a really fun action movie that still holds up today.
And here’s the perfect song to listen to while sitting in traffic!