Reel Action: Speed (Directed by Jan De Bont)

SPEED (1994)
Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Tagline: Get ready for rush hour!

Directed by: Jan De Bont
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels and Sandra Bullock.

THE PLAN: A vengeful madman has rigged an L.A. bus to explode should it speedometer fall below 50 m.p.h., it will go boom. Only tough S.W.A.T officer Jack Traven and plucky citizen Annie can stop this out of control ride!

THE KILL: Has a movie title ever been so apt? Jan De Bont's SPEED moves with an unabashed swiftness that, in 1994, was like a breath of fresh air to the action genre. While every movie was labeled as DIE HARD on a (fill in the blank), SPEED was a clever, original effort that made true stars out of its leads and captured the attention of the movie-going public with its out-of-left-field quirkiness. (And yes, some people even called SPEED "DIE HARD on a bus," and how wrong is that assessment?)

By now the story is as engraved in the pop culture consciousness as any other plotline from the last 20 years. (SPEED is almost 20 years old. Think on that.) A mad bomber (Dennis Hopper, having his career revived for the 2nd or 3rd time), resentful of being thwarted in a previous effort to sabotage an elevator of helpless people, devises an ingenious revenge against the man who stopped him the first time around, Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves). His plan entails rigging a bomb to a Los Angeles bus that, should it dip below 50 m.p.h., it will explode.

A clairvoyant Dennis Hopper has devised Sandra Bullock a punishment for DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD...

What's great about this concept is that one the one hand it's so very arbitrary - where else but in a movie would someone cook up such a scheme, when they could just blow it up on their own? - but on the other, it's a great bit of torture on the part of the villain. The Hopper character, named Howard Payne, wants Jack to agonize over the situation, be a part of it, in fact, and so while it's far-fetched and improbable, it's not hard to fathom.

SPEED makes the very most out of this scenario with a cunningly by-the-book approach. Jan De Bont, making his feature debut as director (he had been a cinematographer on films like DIE HARD and BASIC INSTINCT prior to this), doesn't get flashy with his direction, and the action is more or less done in a straight-forward manner. Think about what SPEED would have looked like in Michael Bay's hands; De Bont's film is like the bus it centers on: sleek, efficient, devoid of beauty but nonetheless a sight to behold.

Another of SPEED's charms comes with its characters: Jack Traven happens to that action hero "good guy" who is also sort of bland and colorless; he's got no backstory, no interesting personality traits, no depth. He exits to look serious and save the day, and because Keanu Reeves is very good at being kind of bland and depthless, the character actually works; Jack is just the cipher we need for this crazy journey.

Similarly, the villain, Howard, has a workmanlike background (he used to be part of a bomb squad himself) and has a bitter, angry disposition. He's no showy terrorist or anarchist with glamorous ideals; he's a guy who feels screwed over and is taking it out on people because he can. Yes, he does it in a very elaborate way, but what the hell?

SPEED does get a little ridiculous toward the end; not content to wrap up its story on the bus, we throw in a fiery airport incident and then go into the subway for even more. Seems a tad anti-climactic, but we forgive it because SPEED has been such a force to be reckoned with up until the finale that it has been a pleasure being along for the ride.

"Let me out here, I want to get off before SPEED 2 happens.."

TOP ACTION: Well hell, the whole movie is like one long action sequence; but I'll flip the script a bit and go with the elevator sequence that begins the movie. There's actually such palpable suspense in that scene that i truly believe it would do Hitchcock proud. (How many times were you sure those legs were going to get chopped off??)

TOP DEATH: It's not spoiling anything to say that the villain really loses his head.

TOP DIALOGUE: Howard to Jack: "Do NOT attempt to grow a brain!"

HOMOEROTIC MOMENT: Jack has some manly love for his partner, Harry (Jeff Daniels), but nothing too fifey.

FEMALE EXPLOITATION: Didn't we all fall in love with Sandra Bullock a little while watching SPEED? Sure, some of us (the lucky ones) were familiar with her already thanks to DEMOLITION MAN, but Ms. Bullock really came out of nowhere for most people with her turn as Annie - even though she can be shrill, annoying and argumentative!

DRINKING GAME: Drink every time Keanu Reeves shows something resembling a human emotion... Wait, you won't get very drunk that way. Just drink every time the soundtrack does that "dun dun dun DUN DUN dun" thing.

TRIVIA: Joss Whedon performed a major rewrite on the shooting script; evidently much of the dialogue is his, and you can hear his voice in some of the film's more sardonic moments.


Tags: reel action



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