Pop quiz, hot shot: is Speed the best action film of the nineties? Hint: the answer is not ‘Shoot the hostage.’
This is a film so high-concept that its title is able to sum up the plot in one word: Speed. There’s a bomb on a bus. If the bus drops below 50 mph, it blows up. Simple. That simplicity is the key to Speed’s brilliance; it doesn’t try to be any more than the cheesy nineties action flick that it is.
Speed delivers on all fronts that you would expect it to: steel-eyed action hero – check. Crazed villain out for revenge – check. Really, really big explosions – check, check! Action movies may be easy to write off as mindless pieces of testosterone-fueled idiocy, but Speed manages to be so goddamn entertaining that its inanity is just part of its greatness.
We kick off with the first of our three hostage situations; in a parallel universe, there’s a movie following two cops as they struggle to save an elevator-load of office workers held ransom by an insane bomber. In Speed, that’s simply the first twenty minutes. Before you know it, Keanu Reeves’ upstart young cop, Jack Traven, has managed to piss off the evil mastermind by foiling his plan and we’re off and away.
The runaway bus is Speed’s main gimmick – but what a gimmick! You’re dragged on a white-knuckle drive along Los Angeles highways and onto the unfinished freeway in one of the most visceral movie-watching experiences ever. Director Jan de Bont does a masterful job of putting the audience right inside with the passengers. He wanted to deliver a documentary feel and while I can’t claim that Speed provides mumblecore-level realism, the sense of intimacy and genuine emotionally-driven tension is there. We care about the bus because we care about its passengers.
Though no one predicted it at the time, Speed launched the careers of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock into the stratosphere, and for good reason. Reeves is action hero perfection. With his expression set to a default of “perplexed anger”, he delivers a deadpan performance: “[his acting is] almost like that syndrome where people have trouble expressing themselves emotionally,” as Jan de Bont put it, perhaps a tad unflatteringly. But that’s the point: this isn’t an emotional drama. There’s no room or, more importantly, time to be nuanced when there are airplanes to explode and hostages to save.
Though Speed ticks almost every action movie box, one it thankfully leaves unchecked is the female sex object. Bullock’s Annie is firmly herself with her own opinions, outlook and personality. She doesn’t serve Jack’s character. In fact, she challenges him and – if you think about it – is ultimately the reason why the bus doesn’t crash. While Jack may have the muscles and the buzzcut, Annie’s heroism at the wheel is no less obvious. On the romantic side of things, Jack and Annie are a standout action film couple thanks to a script that gives them real moments of connection and the sizzling on- and off-screen chemistry of Reeves and Bullock.
Controversially, the script is credited to Graham Yost who, in turn, has since credited TV god and Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon with writing “98.9 percent of the dialogue”. The dialogue itself admittedly does border on self-parody: “There’s gonna come a time, boy, when you will wish you never met me!” Dennis Hopper’s Howard Payne snarls early on, holding a gun to poor Jeff Daniels’ temple. “Mister, I’m already there!” Jack growls back. There’s no poetry here, no layered meaning, nothing more than a bad guy baiting a good guy and a couple of bullets between them. That is perfect: leave the meaningful soliloquizing to Sorkin and Spike Jonze, Keanu Reeves has a bus to stop.
The final sequence sees Howard Payne take Annie hostage on a runaway train. With poor Annie chained to a pole, we arrive at one of my very favourite moments: as Jack and Howard wrestle on the train’s roof, it’s up to Jack to ensure that Howard is beheaded by an overhead light. With this wonderfully gruesome deed complete, the train surges out of the underground tracks and crashes onto the street, leaving Annie and Jack with no option but to make out in front of a group of apparently unfazed onlookers. This ridiculous moment encapsulates the euphoric insanity of the entire movie: there is pretty much no way that the ending could be less understated and it is immeasurably more entertaining for it.
Speed may be utterly ridiculous but it never pretends to be anything else and that’s what movies, in the most spectacular sense of the word, are ultimately about. Speed does what it is supposed to do, taking you on a fantastical journey beyond the realms of your own experience and into a story that is a thousand times more exciting. If my life goes to plan, I expect never to be on a runaway exploding bus but in watching Speed, I get to go on the ride of a lifetime (and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Keanu Reeves is on board).