Released: 10 June 1994
Director: Jan de Bont
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $30 to 37 million
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels, and Joe Morton
Los Angeles Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) specialist Jack Traven (Reeves) is sent to diffuse a bomb that revenge-driven extortionist Howard Payne (Hopper) has planted on a city bus. However, there’s a catch: passenger Anne Porter (Bullock) must keep the bus above fifty miles an hour or else the bomb will detonate!
Speed was the brainchild of screenwriter Graham Yost, who was inspired by The Runaway Train (Konchalovsky, 1985) and thought the concept would be made more exciting if the train had a bomb on it and had to maintain a certain speed. Initially, the entire film was set on the bus and would culminate in a dramatic crash through the iconic Hollywood Sign but the ending was changed and the script was altered in order to sell the concept to 20th Century Fox, with Yost even working with Joss Whedon to refine the script’s dialogue and heavily alter Traven into a more earnest character. Reeves prepared for the role by shaving his head and incorporating his prior experiences on Point Break (Bigelow, 1991), and, after Halle Berry turned down the role of Annie, worked closely with Bullock to develop chemistry between their characters. Speed was a massive financial success; it made over $350 million at the box office and was widely praised for its action and intensity. While the sequel was a dismal critical and commercial failure, Speed remains one of the best action movies of the nineties and, considering that today is Keanu Reeves’ birthday, this seems like the perfect time to revisit the film.
Speed begins not on a bus on the Los Angeles highway but in a large office skyscraper where a bunch of well-dressed, successful businesspeople find themselves trapped in a lift and held to ransom courtesy of a bomber we will later learn is named Howard Payne. For now, though, he’s just a maniacal madman who places a bomb on the lift and demands a $3 million ransom for the safety of his hostages, so the Los Angeles Police Department send in their S.W.A.T. team to try and free the hostages before the bomb can go off. The team is led by Lieutenant Herb “Mac” McMahon (Morton), who meticulously co-ordinates his guys with one primary goal in mind: the evacuation of the building’s occupants and the maintenance of protocol to avoid upsetting the bomber and unnecessarily losing lives.
Jack Traven is a point man in Mac’s team; a bit of a wise-ass, Jack’s snark doesn’t float with Mac, who orders both him and his friend and fellow officer, Harry Temple (Daniels), to investigate the explosive device but strictly forbids them from interfering with it. While Jack remains professional enough to offer words of comfort to the trapped inhabitants, who have no idea of the predicament they’re in, Harry is the expert on explosives and Jack is far more likely to go with his gut instincts regarding the whole situation. Jack deduces that the bomber has every intention of blowing the lift whether he gets paid or not, and showcases his adaptability by rigging a nearby crane to take the weight of the lift, thereby ensuring the hostages’ safety when his hunch turns out to be right (though Payne only blows the lift because of Jack’s interference). Further deducing that their perpetrator is in the building, Jack sets out to track him down, with Harry reluctantly in tow; when Payne gets the drop on them, he takes Harry as a hostage and tries to use him as leverage to ensure his escape but Jack puts into motion his unique approach to such a situation and wounds Harry with a bullet to the leg and Payne appears to kill himself with a suicide vest. Unbeknownst to Jack, Payne survived the explosion and watches with glee as Jack and Harry are commended for their bravery and fortitude; Harry even gets a promotion to detective but warns Jack that they got lucky and that “luck runs out”.
Pissed off that Jack’s interference cost him $3 million, the maniacal Payne strikes by blowing up a bus and its driver right in front of Jack; Payne then calls Jack from a nearby payphone and challenges him to stop him once more. This time, he’s placed his bomb on another bus that will explode once the vehicle goes over fifty miles an hour, and specifically declares his intention to set off the bomb if any passengers are evacuated or if he doesn’t get his ransom in about three hours’ time. Naturally, Jack races to locate the bus and this is when we’re introduced to easily the most annoying character in the film, Annie Porter, played by one of my least favourite actresses in all of cinema, Sandra Bullock. A loud and flighty character, Annie has been forced to take the bus since she lost her driving license on a speeding charge and is the first to actively speak up when Jack dramatically leaps his way aboard the bus. However, when the driver, Sam Silver (Hawthorne James), is injured by an errant gunshot, Annie finds herself in way over her head and taking a central role as the panic-stricken driver of the bus.
On the bus, Jack finds an assortment of normal, everyday Los Angeles citizens, including Doug Stephens (Alan Ruck), a tourist on his first visit to the city who offers wry commentary, and Helen (Beth Grant), a regular passenger whose utter terror results in her being another of Payne’s casualties. When he first boards the bus, Jack is first faced with Annie’s loudmouth but the situation unexpectedly escalates when Ray (Daniel Villarreal) pulls a gun on him and demands the bus be stopped. Thanks to
Gigantor Ortiz (Carlos Carrasco), Ray is disarmed but Sam is shot in the process, meaning Annie has to take over and, while tensions inevitably flair between the frightened passengers, Jack is eventually able to calm them. He does an equally good job of offering encouragement and support to Annie while remaining focused and pragmatic about the entire situation. Thankfully, he has Harry on the line to offer his insight on the bomb, which is packed full of C4, flanked by a number of decoy wires, and wired into a regular gold wristwatch. Bothered by the unreliability of the timer and the unpredictability of the bomber’s methods, Harry conducts a thorough investigation not just into criminals but into former cops and uncovers the bomber’s identity as a former member of the Atlanta Police Department bomb squad. Unfortunately, Harry’s desperation to nail Payne and help his friend leads to his tragic and untimely death as Payne rigged his home with an explosive booby-trap that kills Harry and, in one of the film’s (and Keanu’s) most emotionally impactful scenes, sees Jack enraged into a frenzy and swearing to make the bomber pay for his actions.
Speed is an exercise in tension and excitement; since the bus is forced to stay in constant motion, and over fifty miles an hour, the sheer level of pressure faced by Jack is reflected in the pacing and frantic nature of the film. Even when the bus gains a police escort, they’re never far out of danger; first it’s the gunman, Ray, then Helen nearly blows the whole thing (literally) by trying to escape from the bus as Sam is safely unloaded in an act of faith on Payne’s part, and then they start to run out of road. Even when Jack directs Annie to circle the airport indefinitely, he has to worry about the bus’s severed fuel line and is constantly having to adapt to new problems on the fly.
Thankfully, Jack is more than capable of meeting Payne’s challenge; a focused and driven individual with a strong moral compass, he isn’t afraid to leap head-first into action but is also switched on enough to consider all of his options, while still acting on instinct the vast majority of the time. He commandeers a civilian’s car in a desperate attempt to warn Sam about the danger on his bus and, when that fails, he dramatically leaps from the car and onto the bus despite the fact that both vehicles are travelling at well over fifty miles per hour. While on the bus, he is as honest and forthcoming with the passengers as possible while still doing everything he can to keep things under control and exudes a confidence that, for the most part, keeps the passengers calm. Disgusted at Payne’s lunacy, Jack walks a fine line between negotiating and satisfying the bomber while making it abundantly clear that he has a personal vendetta against Payne. Desperate to keep the passengers safe, Jack doesn’t hesitate to try and disarm the bomb from underneath the bus and, once he figures out how Payne is monitoring them, he comes up with a genius and often copied/parodied solution of looping Payne’s video feed, thus outsmarting his opponent and safely evacuating the passengers.
Of course, much of the film’s action revolves around the tension and drama on the bus; while Mac works to keep the roads clear and safe for Jack, Annie is forced to plough head-first through the dense Los Angeles traffic, make sudden and hard turns to avoid collisions, and, of course, to make a seemingly impossible leap to cross an unfinished freeway. While it’s perhaps a little unlikely that such a large and cumbersome vehicle would be able to make such a jump, especially with the added weight of all those passengers, it does make for a thrilling scene that’s one of the film’s most memorable moments. Once the bus hits the airport, it’s largely out of danger and Jack’s focus switches to figuring out how Payne can always know so much; after making the connection between Payne’s seemingly random “Wildcat” reference, Jack discovers that Payne has a camera rigged on the bus and has Mac commandeer Payne’s signal to loop the feed. It’s lucky, and seemingly unlikely, that Payne only had the one camera on the bus (and that he didn’t rig up a microphone or other device so he could hear what was going on as well) but, when he figures out that he’s been duped out of his money again, the mad bomber decides to take a more direct approach for the film’s finale.
After Jack and Annie’s dramatic (and explosive) escape from the bus, Payne disguises himself as a police officer, abducts Annie, straps her into an explosive vest, and escapes into the subway with his money and his hostage. Having eliminated Jack’s “shoot the hostage” strategy, Payne hijacks a subway train, handcuffing Annie to the inside, and makes his getaway, but is driven into a psychotic rage when he discovers his ransom is rigged with paint that makes it worthless. Jack, ever the man of action, pursues and boards the train, drawing Payne into a confrontation on the train’s roof! Despite being Payne older, insane, and handicapped by his missing thumb, the mad bomber is initially able to overwhelm is younger, stronger foe thanks to the threat of the detonator in his hand. However, Jack is able to behead Payne using an overheard railway signal (delivering an odd quip about being taller in the process), ending his threat once and for all while keeping Annie safe. Thanks to Payne’s trigger finger, though, the train is left out of control; with no way to free Annie from her cuffs and few options left, Jack opts to speed the train up and send it crashing out onto Hollywood Boulevard. Unbelievably, the two are left unharmed beyond the few scrapes and cuts they picked up from escaping the bus, and the film closes with them finally acting on the middling amount of sexual tension they shared during the film’s chaotic events while a gaggle of spectators look on.
I hate to say it, but I’ve never really been that big a fan of Speed. The premise is certainly unique, and definitely ends up being much more than just “Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988) on a bus” thanks to the high-octane thrill of a bus that cannot slow down and the many different obstacles that get in the way of that premise. Where it excels is in the performances of Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper; whenever anyone tries to tell me that Keanu is “wooden”, I point them to his intense and emotional fit of rage at learning of his friend’s death and his performance is only bolstered by Hopper’s maniacal bomber. Hopper is as much of a highlight as the ever-escalating action on the bus, which ploughs through traffic, red lights, and even inexplicably leaps a gap in the freeway in a bid to stay over fifty mile an hour. Where the film slightly falls, for me, though is in the casting of Sandra Bullock and her ever-grating performance as the flustered Annie (who’s as much of a liability as she is an asset) and the ending, which attempts to out-do the intensity felt on the bus with a runaway subway train and maybe pushes its luck a little too far. It’s an oddly contradictory film as well, feeling both too long and yet well-paced at the same time, but it’s definitely an entertaining and intense spin on the action genre. Speed is worth your time for Reeves, Hopper, and the sequences on the bus alone and is a great showcase of Reeves’ range and capability as an actor and leading man.
Are you a fan of Speed? What did you think of the film’s premise and Keanu’s performance? Are you a fan of Sandra Bullock, or did she also bring the film down a notch for you? Did you enjoy the tense sequences on the bus and Dennis Hopper’s maniacal Howard Payne? How did you react when Harry met his untimely end? Would you have liked to see Keanu return in the sequel? How are you celebrating Keanu Reeves’ birthday today and what are some of your favourite roles of his? Whatever you think, go ahead and sign up to leave a comment down below or let me know on my social media.