Speed Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Alright, pop quiz. Airport. Gunman with one hostage. He's using her for cover. He's almost to the plane. You're a hundred feet away. Jack?
Shoot the hostage.
Take her out of the equation. Go for the good wound and he can't go for the plane with her. Clear shot.
Speed Box Art

Director Jan De Bont's film career started off in Amsterdam, where he and fellow film-maker Paul Verhoeven ("Robocop", "Total Recall", "Basic Instinct", "Showgirls"-- do you see a pattern here?) were part of the 'Dutch New Wave' of film-makers during the 1960s. In his three decade film-making career, he has mastered all aspects of film-making, from production design to editing to cinematography, working on television projects and feature films, which spanned a diverse collection of formats, from the European-style arthouse film to low-budget documenteries to big budget Hollywood movies. Much of De Bont's early work was in collaboration with his fellow Dutchman, Verhoeven.

His big Stateside directorial debut was "Speed", released in 1994 on a paltry budget of $30 million. This non-stop-never-a-dull-moment actioner came from out of nowhere and dominated the box office that summer. Scripted by Canadian screenwriter Graham Yost (who later went on to write "Broken Arrow"), the ingenious premise was partially inspired by the film "Runaway Train", which revolved around three characters trapped on a freight train uncontrollably hurtling towards the end of the line. Though "Speed" has often been called a "Die Hard" incarnation set on a bus, perhaps a more apt description would be to call "Speed" a disaster movie set on a bus.

Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) are two SWAT-team members who are called to a hostage situation in an office building. Harold Payne (an exceptionally creepy Dennis Hopper), an ex-bomb disposal officer from Atlanta, has rigged an elevator holding a CEO and his upper managers with explosives, and demands a ransom of three million dollars to be paid. The quick-thinking duo manage to rescue the hostages and track down Payne. However, Payne takes Harry hostage, and to prevent him from getting away, Jack shoots Harry in the leg, taking his friend 'out of the equation'. Payne escapes, followed by a large explosion, and it is assumed that Payne died in the explosion.

You think I wouldn't have been prepared? Two years I spent setting up that elevator job. Two years I invested myself in it. You couldn't understand the commitment that I have. You ruin a man's life work and you think you can walk away?

After being awarded citations for bravery, a bus explodes in front of Jack one morning. A nearby payphone rings, and when Jack answers it , it is Payne on the other end, who has a new plot. He has rigged a bomb on another bus. Once the bus exceeds the speed of fifty miles per hour, the bomb is activated. If the speed of the bus drops below fifty, KABOOM. Jack races off to find the bus and after a daring stunt with somebody else's Jaguar, he boards the bus.

Aw jeez, you know it took me three hours just to get here from the airport. I got so lost. L.A. is one large place. Of course, you live here, you probably don't notice. I'm such a yokel. There, I said it! Ha, ha.
Know what? I got gum on my seat. Gum!

Once on board the bus, Jack finds a whole slew of slice-o'-life characters that typically populate your disaster movie. There's the wide-eyed tourist with always something witty to say, the fanatical doomsayer that jeopardizes everyone's safety and generally gets everyone down ("We're all gonna die!!!!"), the criminal packing heat to keep things interesting, the rational strongman with a toolbox, and of course, the mothering type of leader that serves as a counterpoint and a love interest to Jack, Annie Potter (Sandra Bullock in her breakthrough role).

Miss, can you handle this bus?
Sure, it's just like driving a really big Pinto!
Can you handle it?
Yes, yes, I can.
So you're a cop, right?
That's right.
I should probably tell you that I'm taking the bus because my license was revoked.
What for?

It is at this point the deviations from the Die Hard formula become readily apparent. Jack is not your typical Die Hard formula protagonist. He is not a 'fallen' hero seeking redemption. In fact, Jack is presented as having very few shortcomings. About the closest to any tragic flaw that one can find with Jack is his overwhelming desire to maintain control, which is reflected in his philosophy towards his work, where he treats everything like an equation. Of course, this causes him to make snap judgments, such as shooting Harry in the leg. The female protagonist, Annie, does not fit the 'fallen' hero mold either. Though she has had her license revoked for speeding, her story arc does not support the need for any type of redemption.

Ma'am, you did very well. Actually, you were incredible. I've never seen driving like that.
Annie. It's my name. Annie. As opposed to 'ma'am'.

What makes "Speed" more like a disaster movie than a Die Hard is the ensemble cast working together to solve the common problem. The different passengers on the bus, who would normally not even look each other in the eye during a normal commute, must interact, put aside the differences, and work together to survive the ordeal (such as Jack making peace with the Hispanic gang member).

Jack! We're really scared and we need you right now! I can't do this by myself!

In the Die Hard formula, the actions of the protagonist are targeted directly at the antagonists. In "Speed", the actions of Jack and the passengers are directed at keeping the bus moving, trying to mitigate the consequences of the antagonist's actions. This point is also apparent when other disaster movies are examined: "The Towering Inferno" had the main characters attempting to neutralize the effects of faulty wiring, and "The Poseidon Adventure" was about dealing with the after-effects of a tidal wave. The pay-off in this type of movie is watching the characters recognize their interdependence in the face of an insurmountable challenge, and managing the situation the best they can.

We're leaking gas?
We are now.
What?! You think you needed another challenge?

One interesting interpretation of "Speed" is that it is a commentary on the loathing of mass transit by Los Angelinos. In Los Angeles, the car is a virtual demi-god, a symbol of independence. And in "Speed" we see mass transit gone awry-- first an elevator, then a bus, and finally the still-as-yet uncompleted subway system. Annie complains that she is not taking the bus by choice, and that she 'misses her car'. Still another interpretation of this narrative ties into one of the proposed reasons for the resurgence of disaster movies in the late 1990s-- pre-Millennium hysteria. With the passing of any Millennium, there has always been a groundswell of doom-and-gloom in popular culture. One can see examples of this in the increasing number of incidents of suicide cults and the numerous television specials on Fox with titles like "When Animals Strike" or "Nature's Fury" or "The End of the World". The bus can be seen as a representation of all our collective fates, hurtling towards an uncertain future, and despite our efforts to forestall the inevitable chaotic events that do occur, which cannot be modeled into any sort of an equation, they are beyond our control.

He's somewhere else jerking off now!
He didn't have to get on the bus in the first place, Ortiz. Hey! Get your ass behind the yellow line!

Anyone that has driven in Los Angeles will know how impossible it is to keep a car, let alone a bus, at fifty miles per hour (unless it is 2 am in the morning). And everyone has pointed out the inconsistency between the angle of incline on the ramp leading to the gap in the highway and the eventual angle of ascent of the bus as it negotiates the gap. And despite placing a location transponder on the bomb which fed a constantly-updating display of the bus' position in Payne's hide-out, Payne never figured out that the bus had already detonated until half-an-hour after the explosion. Sure, "Speed" had its share of inconsistencies and plot holes, but who cares? "Speed" excels due to its ten-minute interval narrative structure. Every ten minutes, a new crisis is introduced, developed, and resolved, only to be replaced by another. This type of consistent pacing is rarely seen, and in combination with the rapid-fire editing, makes for one exhilarating theatrical experience, so exhilarating that you don't mind them.

Of course, the downside to this narrative style is the truncated character development. We are never really given very much background information on the characters, except for Harold Payne, that would provide a basis for their behavior during the crisis. But despite this shortfall, a few characters do shine, such as Annie, a woman who is caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and takes on a leadership role, though remaining unsure of her abilities. Her spunk and enthusiasm contribute to the overall energy level of the movie. Jack, despite some stilted acting by Keanu Reeves in certain parts, carries off the role of the overwhelmed and increasingly frustrated leader.

We're at the airport.
Yeah, so?
I've already seen the airport.

And this year, in 1997, the sequel of Speed will be released, with De Bont once again at the helm (he actually has a cameo in "Speed" as the gray-haired man by the television truck at the airport), this time with a much larger budget. However, Keanu Reeves, who wasn't interested in signing on again, is now replaced by Jason Patric. He plays Annie's new beau, who also happens to be another SWAT officer, and their travels takes them on board a cruise ship. A madman (Willem Dafoe) takes control of the ship, and sends it hurtling at top speed towards an oil tanker. "Not again!" Annie cries out as she and her boyfriend must stop the cruise ship from hurtling towards certain destruction.

Relationships that start under intense circumstances never last.

So if you are one of the few people who never saw the "Speed" the first time around, be sure to check it out on video, especially with the widescreen videocassette or DVD now available from Twentieth Century Fox that preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio with a kicking THX soundtrack.

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