Monday, July 8, 2013

Heavy Action: Speed

by Patrick Bromley
Pop quiz, hotshot. You've got a first-time director, a star who's kind of a laughing stock and a premise so silly it inspires giggles. What do you do?

Speed is one of the very best action movies of the 1990s. It should not be.

Now that it's become such a piece of our pop culture lexicon, it's hard to believe what a long shot Speed was when it came out in 1994. Its star, Keanu Reeves, had long been dismissed as the "whoa" guy -- a talentless surfer dude who lucked into a movie career courtesy of a few successful performances playing a dummy. His only previous attempt at an action movie, Point Break, made money but didn't blow the doors off the box office; what's more is that it had already become a punch line for its silly cops vs. surfers plot. No one was looking to take Keanu Reeves seriously as an action hero.

His co-star, Sandra Bullock, was not yet a movie star, even though she should have become one after stealing Demolition Man (though for my Sandy B., it seemed like a forgone conclusion that she would be eventually -- it was not a matter of "if" but "when"). Dennis Hopper had been mostly written off since the 1970s, the occasional Blue Velvet or Hoosiers aside. The director, Jan de Bont, was a former cinematographer trying his hand at directing for the first time ever. The writer, Graham Yost, never had a feature film produced; his only writing credits at that time were for TV shows like Hey Dude and Herman's Head. None of this seems like the recipe for success.

And then there is the premise, the kind of ridiculous high-concept plot that invites derisive laughter: L.A. cop Jack Traven (Reeves) pisses off a mad bomber (Hopper) by ruining his plans to take an elevator full of people hostage in exchange for a bunch of money. To retaliate, the bomber gets Traven on board a city bus he has rigged to explode if it drops below 55 mph. And off we go.
Part of the movie's greatness rests in its structure. Perhaps recognizing that the bomb-on-bus plot might not be enough to fill a two hour movie (which has never stopped most filmmakers), screenwriter Yost divides the film up into three major set pieces: the elevator rescue that opens the film, the bus sequence that makes up the majority of its running time and the finale aboard a speeding subway. There is a built-in economy to all of this: besides being a thrilling and suspenseful scene, the opening bit on the elevator tells us what we need to know about Traven and his relationship with his partner, Harry Temple (an always-sardonic Jeff Daniels). It sets up Hopper as the villain and establishes the personal vendetta that drives the rest of the plot. A lesser movie would make the sequence unrelated just to open the movie with a bang, or -- even worse -- would have shown Reeves losing one or two of the hostages so that he could carry that pain with him for the rest of the film and flash back to a screaming woman plunging down an elevator shaft each time a situation gets tough. SO MANY movies have done that bit. Speed is too smart for that.

Each of the set pieces builds on one another, too, with Traven using the information he gained during the last encounter to inform his current situation. They don't exist as separate pieces, but rather lead into one another in an organic way, gaining the exact kind of momentum a movie about things that can't slow down needs to have. So many action movies have such a familiar, skeletal structure (A, B, C, B, D, B) that depends on talky resets between set pieces: Big action scene! Debrief back at HQ (or wherever). Big action scene! Debrief. World War Z, currently in theaters, follows this exact formula. Speed just continues to build and build - A leads to B leads to C leads to DON'T SLOW DOWN.

Sometimes, though, the way the set pieces inform one another can be disappointing. The movie's biggest frustration is that (spoilers) Jack and Annie use the same method to get out of the subway predicament as they had already used on the bus -- they speed it up to jump the unfinished section. Yes, that stays true to the idea that the characters are always applying what they have learned, but it feels unnecessarily repetitive for a movie that otherwise proves to be good at inventing new problems and new solutions. This is the action climax of the movie, and giving us something we saw just 20 minutes ago sucks some of the air out. We expect the beat to be twisted in one way or another, but NOPE it's the exact same as what just happened on the freeway.
I've often spoken about my love and respect for action movies that are defined by character (Die Hard being the textbook example). The reason Speed is so clever is because it understands how to do that -- it presents four very well-drawn characters and lets them bounce off one another -- but actually inverts the formula. In Speed, it is not the characters that define the action but the action that defines the characters. Making Traven a reactive character for much of the film does not make him passive; rather, it is the process of watching him think his way out of each new obstacle that makes the movie so effective. And when he can't think his way out, he just acts -- he takes big chances because he's convinced he can make his efforts succeed through sheer force of will. His reactivity gives him agency. There is such simplicity to the character, but it works because there is simplicity to the plot. We know everything we need to know about Jack Traven inside the confines of the story being told. Again, there is another version of this movie that introduces an angry ex-wife or a drinking problem. Speed is too smart for that.

Of course the things that happen in the movie are ludicrous, but the movie owns its craziness. Yost's script comes up with as many realistic obstacles as it can: L.A. traffic, unfinished highways, tire damage, fuel concerns. It's asking a lot that we accept a bus that will explode if it doesn't slow down, so it's great that the film doesn't pile more stupid shit on top of that -- instead, it makes every attempt to ground the high concept with realistic, believable details. This is a movie that could be really stupid but instead is made with great intelligence. There are smart people behind it, so even when it threatens to go totally off the rails we are still willing to go with it. We know we are in good hands. Never underestimate the value of good hands.

The movie marks the middle chapter of Keanu Reeves starring in three of the Best Action Movies Ever Made (kicking off with Point Break and finishing with The Matrix). This is a totally different performance for him, enough that it almost feels like he's being cast against type. Jack Traven is the Hitchcock archetype of a Man Who is Good at His Job; he is serious almost to a fault, quicker to act than to think, a guy who lives by his gut and survives as much on luck as he does on skill. The performance is almost entirely physical, and Reeves commits to it 100% -- not only did he get in the best shape of his life, but he throws himself into every bit of physicality to make Traven a living, ass-kicking creation.

What humanizes him and makes him likable, though, is his interaction with my Sandy Bullock as Annie, a Northwestern graduate forced to ride bus 2525 because her license is suspended. Bullock is Speed's secret weapon and a big part of what made the movie a hit; not only is she warm and funny and charming, but there is a sense of discovery in watching her performance in the movie, like we're seeing someone become a movie star right in front of us. We want Jack to succeed in disarming the bomb and save the bus because he is our hero and because we don't want innocent people to be killed, but our investment can be boiled down even more basically to Annie has to survive this. The decision to put her behind the wheel of the bus is ingenious in the way that it both raises the stakes and endears her to us further. On a bus full of vulnerable people, she is the most vulnerable -- and also one of the bravest.
This was the first directorial effort for Dutch cinematographer Jan de Bont, who must have learned a thing or two about how to shoot clear, clean action from John McTiernan as the DP on The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard. He does such a good job on Speed that it really seemed like he was going to become the next great action director; instead, he followed it up with Twister -- a movie that made a lot of money despite being terrible -- and then completely shit the bed by doing Speed 2: Cruise Control. It was all over after that. It's fortunate that I love Speed enough that I can completely ignore that the sequel exists, because that movie could have ruined movies for me. Not even my Sandy B. can save that one. I prefer Speed 3: The Lake House.

Speed was one of those great examples of a movie becoming a genuine word-of-mouth hit, grossing over $350 million on a budget of $30 million (if it were made today, it would cost five times that much). It was a movie that people went to see because everyone who saw it came back talking about how good it was. I saw it alone at a preview screening on the last day of my junior year of high school and fell completely in love with it, growing frustrated that people thought I was crazy for recommending it in the days before everyone could see it for themselves and learn that I WAS RIGHT. Almost 20 years later, I'm still right. Speed is an action classic and deserves to be.

Holy shit is Speed a great movie. Reeves is totally effective in the lead, his chemistry with my Sandy B. is great, she's adorable and charming, Hopper is over the top, Jeff Daniels is great comic relief, the script is smart, the action is fantastic, the pacing is perfect. The movie doesn't waste any time; even in its non-action scenes (and there are a lot of them -- it's not wall-to-wall chaos) it sticks to what matters -- these characters, their predicament and how they're going to get out of it. It's a great example of a movie in which everything clicks.
This summer has been frustrating, with lots of expensive spectacle but few real stories being told. Speed may be written off as Dumb Summer Fun, but it's the kind of action movie we should have more of. Story, character, drama -- get these things back in our summer movies and we'll all be enjoying ourselves a whole lot more. Speed has it all. Plus Sandra Bullock.


  1. Fun Fact: Joss Whedon wrote the final draft of the script, but Yost still got the full writer's credit due to some stipulation in the Writer's Guild.

    I have always really enjoyed this film and was grateful that I finally got to find out what is inside those yellow barrels on the side of a freeway.

    1. I knew he had worked on it in some capacity. It makes sense, because he is a good writer. Thanks, Cameron!

  2. I love Speed, but the subway scene has always seemed a bit superfluous and anticlimactic to me. I think it's because the bus scenes are all obviously filmed "real," with terrific practical stunts, while the subway stuff was clearly done on a soundstage. On balance it's still a terrific movie.

  3. Loved Speed and was so pumped for Speed 2! Haven't seen Speed 2 since opening day in the theaters. Is it worth going back to for a re-watch to enjoy the badness? I just remember it being really dull.

    "It's like Speed 2, but on a bus instead of a boat!"

    1. That is one of my favourite Simpsons quotes.

    2. Haha, that quote did make me smile.

    3. I re-watched Speed 2 on cable about a year ago. There is no fun to be had there. Dull is the right word.

  4. I have to say that I didn't hate "Speed 2". Is it as good? No, but I have seen far, far worse.

    Hey, at least we got Hope Floats out of the deal. JK.

    That being said, I thought it was funny that the films directed by Jan de Bont all had homages to Kubrick in them.

    Remember in Twister people were watching The Shining at the Drive-In?

    Also, in Speed 2, someone is watching Lolita and then a young girl begins to flirt with Jason Patrick during dinner...

  5. Has anyone else every noticed how one of the passengers on the bus is a woman who looks like a 1950's librarian? Is she a hipster? Time machine?

    This movie is THE BOMB (Pun intended).

  6. Another thing we have to be thankful to "Speed" for: it made Graham Yost a sought-after writer. Though that led to some pretty bad screenplays ("Hard Rain," "Broken Arrow," etc.) it led to Yost creating and co-writing one of the best TV shows on the air right now, FX's "Justified" with Timothy Olyphant.

  7. I love Speed now, somewhere near Die Hard, it's one of my favorite action movies, but it took me a loooong time to actually get around to seeing it. Meanwhile, I believe I saw Speed 2 in a theater when it first came out. Yikes. I enjoy Sandra Bullock, and seeing The Heat this past weekend reminded me of this fact, but Speed is one of the original reasons why I feel this way.

  8. Another good thing in Speed I like is that for the most part the people trapped in the bus don't have little character traits and/or catch phrases to identify each one of them specifically (save for Cameron from Ferris Buellers Day off) Keeping the focus on Keanu,Sandra,Hopper, and Daniels allows Speed to stay on track and really develop the characters. (The Expendables 1 & 2 have this issue.)

    As for Simpsons/Speed related quotes this one is my favorite from when Homer, Lenny, and Carl rig a looping videotape to get out of work "I saw this in a movie about a bus that had to SPEED across the city, keeping it's SPEED over fifty, and if it's SPEED dropped, it would explode. I think it was called 'the bus that couldn't slow down'

  9. Love this review! Speed is probably darn close to being a perfect movie. I actually think Jeff Daniels is a huge part to making this movie great, despite having so little screen time. Man I love Keanu. We all need a little more Keanu in our lives.

  10. After rewatching John Wick last weekend, I immediately followed that with Speed.

    Man, does this movie still work perfectly. What a great idea, what a great movie. And what a shockingly beautiful guy Keanu was 21 years ago.

    Wonderful chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, a fine supporting cast, good dialogue and great stunts. The perfect action machine.

    I´m sure, only a handful of action movies have been produced in the years between Speed and John Wick that come close to this much fun.