Speed June 23, 2018
Jan de Bont
1 Hr., 56 Mins.
ou’d think that at the pace at which Speed (1994) moves there’d come a point where its makers, the director Jan de Bont and the screenwriter Graham Yost, might consider throwing in some sort of cinematic siesta in the middle of all the rumpus to allow us to blow off some steam. Toss in a romantic interlude, maybe. A dramatic heart to heart, perhaps. No movie can have all three of its acts fundamentally defined by wall-to-wall action sequences, right?
Turns out Speed, the fifth highest-grossing movie of 1994, is the rare
sort of film that turns its head in disgust at the very idea of slowing down. It is an action movie, all right. But it is an anomaly in that it is almost completely defined by its high-octane vim and expensive special effects (namely explosives). Why bother with any sort of dramatic nuance when you can showcase how-did-they-do-that-style sequences of suspense? The feature wonders.
Speed is beleaguered with a B-movie premise, but the secret to its success is that de Bont and co. give it the A treatment. Essentially, the movie is about a mad bomber named Howard (Dennis Hopper) terrorizing the city of Los Angeles, and the man — a level-headed cop named Jack (Keanu Reeves) — who, time and time again, is saddled with thwarting his plans.
In the first act, Jack and his partner, the sardonic Harry (Jeff Daniels), have to save a band of citizens trapped in a high-rise elevator after Howard severs its cables. Howard wants $3 million, or else he’ll blow off the elevator’s emergency brakes.
It doesn’t fly. Then in the second act — which takes up most of the film’s vacuum-packed 116 minutes — Howard, in an attempt to make up for his failure, plants a bomb under a city bus. He tells Jack that the vehicle will explode if it goes under 50 mph. Demands are still basically the same as they were during the elevator episode, and such forces Jack to hop aboard the shuttle to figure out just exactly how to get everyone off safely.
In the third part, Jack and Howard act in a melodramatic showdown in a subway, which, while still as adrenaline-infused as everything coming before it, acts as a sort of cool down. Though just barely: In Speed, opportunities to sit happily, with your heart beating at a normal pace, aren't around. The only recourse is laughing at a one-liner, maybe, though the people delivering them are only cracking jokes to take weight off the fact that they’re on edge too.
Speed is, at its core, facile and summery. But the majority of action movies are in some way or another, anyway, and the film reminds us that, when features within the genre are executed almost spotlessly, the cheap thrills offered don't seem so cheap anymore. Speed is in no doubt an experience — a taut crowd-pleaser that never lets up and is all the better for it.
It seamlessly transitions between four settings: The bus, on which Reeves, the passengers, and the effervescent Sandra Bullock (who steals the show as a remarkably calm young woman who takes over the bus-driving duties) try to figure out just what the hell to do; the sinister apartment of Hopper, wherein the latter either menacingly telephones Reeves or spends the time watching athletics on one of his several television sets; the police station, where Daniels and co-workers make an effort to decipher the identity of the antagonist; and the sidelines, where more active members of Reeves’s cohort assist as best they can. De Bont fluidly captures the feature’s spaces, and how quickly time passes for these in-crisis characters.
While watching the film, I found myself consistently reminded of the 1974 hostage thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which I relished for the same reasons I relish Speed. In both, we’re supposed to believe we’re watching everyday people trying on action-movie superhero garb and attempting to make it look good on them.
Believe we do. However screwball Speed is, it contains Taking’s brand of everyman energy that keeps it on earth, therefore upping the stakes. This is why, I think, people continue to react so positively to Speed: it’s physics-defying and rather implausible, but it’s just naturalistic enough to keep it from looking like some silly pulp fantasy. It's like watching a near-catastrophe unfold in real time. A