I may have said it before, but let me reiterate: 1994 was a huge year in movies for a young Puck. Today’s random movie was one of the apexes of my love for movies. I saw Speed in theaters only once but I more than made up for it when it was released on VHS (ahh, nostalgia). Within a week, I was quoting the movie verbatim to all of my discerning middle school friends. They thought I was a loon. Perhaps they were right. But then again, Speed kicks ass. So, I claim victory even if none of them will know it.
Almost immediately, Speed kicks off with a rather enthralling opening that is actually relevant with rest of the movie! A mad bomber has rigged a downtown L.A. elevator with a bomb that spells doom for the dozen or so passengers on board. With some quick thinking by S.W.A.T. members Jack (Keanu Reeves) and Harry (Jeff Daniels), the bomber’s plans are thwarted and the passengers saved with the bomber allegedly blowing himself up once the jig is up.
Sometime later, Mr. Bomber notifies Jack that he has planted a bomb on a bus. That bus cannot drop below 50 MPH or else it will explode. This proves quite difficult in L.A. traffic with random baby carriages, school children, and inept cops trying their damnedest to make that bus blow up. It is a simple concept, to which there have been many copycats (anyone else remember the insanely ludicrous Chill Factor with Cuba and Skeet?), but Speed excels where many other films have failed.
In a perfect world, Speed would be regarded as a tentpole of the action genre like Die Hard is. It certainly helps that director Jan de Bont was director of photography on said action tentpole film as well as many other highly regarded pictures. Throughout the run time, the kinetic feel is quite engrossing with the constant threat of harm and the cat and mouse game between the cops and the bomber (Dennis Hopper). Hell, I’ve seen this more times than I care to admit and even some of the sequences such as Jack’s entrance to the bus or the freeway jump are crafted so nicely as to defy you to be ambivalent during them.
Keanu has caught a lot of flack over the years with his emotionless, wooden acting but this is likely the role he was born to play (Neo notwithstanding). In fact, I can only think of Keanu belting out timeless lines like “shoot the hostage” or “yeah, but I’m taller” with the absurdly subdued emotions that his character calls for. Sandra Bullock as the makeshift bus driver Annie is frantic, yet sweet and funny as the perfect candidate for what a leading Hollywood actress should be (well, before Speed 2 that is).
The best part of the acting front though is hands-down Dennis Hopper. Howard Payne, the bomber, is frustrated and demented and Hopper nails that persona with all the over-the-top acting he can muster. In any other movie, his performance would be laughable. But the biggest strength of Speed is that it is played serious even though the story is quite implausible. That makes Payne merely another colorful character in this implausible universe.
And unlike many big action movies, Speed is, for the most part, grounded in some semblance of reality. The threat is bizarre, but conceivable and other than the aforementioned bus jump, there is little else in the film that makes you stop and think, “wait, that didn’t make ANY damn sense.” Compare it to a “Cobra-stole-the-warhead” alarm or random action heroes outrunning huge explosions (take your pick for which movie) and Speed is one the same footing as Die Hard with an average Joe stuck in an guy stuck in an unparalleled situation.
Since action movies typically have a “check your brain at the door” mentality about them, those that don’t adhere to that only stand out more prominently. As such, with such a great combination of story, cast, and crew, Speed is far better than it has any right to be.