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Non-Review Review: Speed

Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?

– Howard tells you everything you need to know

Speed is the quintessential nineties action movie. If you want to look at a movie that typifies what a nineties action film looked like, but does so with an incredible amount of skill (and a reasonable portion of wit), it’s hard to recommend a more obvious choice. It’s a movie that falls apart if you think about it too hard, but director Jan de Bont does an absolutely amazing job making sure that we’re never really looking beyond the next ridiculous plot twist or tension action set piece. More than earning its name, Speed is a movie that runs on enough raw adrenaline that it becomes as easy to overlook the movie’s flaws as it is to it seems to be ride a bus across a fifty-foot gap in a half-constructed bridge. And de Bont manages to make that look really easy.

Can I phone a friend on this "pop quiz"?

From the moment the opening credits start, with that pulse-pounding almost-overwhelming theme from Mark Mancina, you know you’re in for something special. Movement is the name of the game here, appropriately enough. There’s a sense that, like the bus, if the movie stops moving for more than the shortest instant, it will die. So we’re treated to credits as we dive down an elevator shaft, perhaps one of the must terrifying locations in the urban sprawl – a pit that might as well be bottomless.

And the movie only moves fast from there. We open with an action sequence that establishes our key players and makes the upcoming conflict between hero and villain personal. We’re required to spend a few minutes after this developing the characters – getting to know them so we might invest them and care for them. Most action films would take ten or fifteen minutes to introduce us to our lead. They’d tell us who he hangs around with, whether there’s love in his life, what his relationship with his father is like. Speed has no time for this retrospective melodrama. It’s lead is a cop played by Keanu Reeves; we know he’s a good guy, and it trusts us that this is all we need to know. It doesn’t matter if he has a life outside the job, because it’s no relevent to the matter at hand. I admire de Pont’s direct style, which allows the movie to almost immediately leap into its high concept.

It heats up...

And it’s a nice high concept. It’s perhaps not as elegant as Phone Booth, but it provides a hell of a hook for the film. After all, the American action is movie is just an engine designed to push forward like a roller coaster, producing any number of appropriate emotional responses that attempt to transcend the logical and the rational. Just as we know we’re unlikely to actually die on a roller coaster, we know that the sequence of events playing out on the big screen is improbably unlikely – the skill is in allowing us to look past the potential irrational flaws in the plot and just go along with the ride. The plot itself feels like a perfect distillation of that, and it seems like a reflection on the genre: as long as you keep going fast enough, the audience will go along for the ride.

Consider the scene where our protagonist attempts to stop the bomb from arming by preventing the bus from hitting over fifty miles an hour. There are any number of obvious flaws in this plan. It seems like morning rush hour, so it seems possible the bus might never hit fifty anyway. More than that, the villain’s plan would be pretty easily foiled if Jack manages to catch the bus before it goes over that limit – which needs to seem plausible for us to buy into the suspense. Hell, he could even ring the bus company and ask them to contact the driver. The movie does offer the explanation that the bomber is a psychotic, but the basic set-up really doesn’t seem like the work of criminal mastermind.

Quick draw...

However, de Bont is not concerned by such things. Instead of being a moment of convenient plotting captured on film, Jack’s race to catch the bus is handled as some sort of bombastic cinematic ballet. De Bont pumps up the volume so as to drown out that kill-joy logical voice inside his head, and cuts bag and forth, beautifully contrasting the chaos of Jack’s ride with the calm on the bus. We focus on the wheels and the tires, which seem to be on the verge of coming off the road. Hell, Jack is introduced as if his car has simply dropped out the sky. When we need to deliver some exposition later in the film, Jack does it while talking through the window of a moving car.

The laws of physics are malleable in de Bont’s world, as they are in so many action movies. The difference between Speed and so many mid-level actioners is the degree of skill the director demonstrates in his craft. The movie is a well-oiled machine, constructed in the knowledge that it will fall apart if it doesn’t keep going at a mile a minute. In fairness, de Bont is working with a sharp script from Graham Yost, which acknowledges the implausibility of all these coincidences, without labouring the point. When it’s revealed Jack has accidentally punctured the fuel tank, creating yet another in a series of dilemmas, Annie asks, “What, you thought you needed another challenge?” As another problem presents itself, Jack briefs Annie, “Annie, you won’t believe this…”

Driving the plot...

It helps that de Bont has two great leads. Action movie stars like Stallone or Van Damme bring their own personas to their work, but Keanu Reeves works as an action movie star because he’s a blank slate. He’s never going to win any acting awards, but it’s easy to accept him as a blank plot device, and we embrace the fact that Jack seems to have relatively little going on outside his police work. Reeves knows what he’s doing, and he’s competent without being showy. It helps that Sandra Bullock brings enough warmth to her supporting role that she can cover for the relative lack of personality Reeves gives Jack.

Of course, the real star of the show is Dennis Hopper as the psychotic bomber. There’s a lot to love in Hopper’s established career. Personally, I think his work on True Romance is perhaps his finest performance. However, this is one of the most gleeful bad guys of the nineties – a character who is clever, but psychotic and downright scary. When I think of action film villains from the decade, only Gary Oldman from Leon and Jeremy Irons from Die Hard with a Vengeancereally match what Hopper does here.

An explosive performance...

It helps that de Bont seems to be having a bit of fun with Howard, casting the villian as a sort of a meta-fictional “director” of the action movie. If the bus in the film is the metaphor for a big-budget action film, Howard is the man calling the shots. He’s a parody of the sort of Michael Bay director who is fascinated by fire and explosions. In fact, Howard spends most of the film watching the action from a safe distance, relayed through screens offering different angles of the action – reminding us of that stereotypical depiction of a director reviewing footage to piece together a masterpiece.

“There are rules,” Howard warns Jack at one point, “You do this right.” This is Howard’s masterpiece we’re staging here, watching it play out. He’s engaged with the drama he’s creating on screen – at various points he even talks to Jack while not on the phone, so caught up in the scene that he thinks his voice can cross the barrier through the television to his protagonist. He even grades his own performance in the film. “It seemed a little hammy to me to build the bomb out of my precious retirement gift,” he confesses, “but I figured a sign that said “Howard Payne” would be pushing it.” Of course, all directors want credit and include signatures in their work.

Here comes the Payne...

Speed is one of those rare movies that propels itself with enough force to hold the audience’s attention that the plotholes seem like slight bumps in the road, rather than a bridge that has disappeared out from under the director and his cast.

I saw this in a movie about a bus that had to speed around the city, keeping its speed over fifty. And if its speed dropped, the bus would explode! I think it was called… “The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down.”

– Homer also gives a succinct summary

7 Responses

  1. Your review of “Speed” is entirely on the money. The movie is lean, thrilling, and works like perfect clockwork. It’s too bad that “Speed 2” turned out so bad, though there’s nothing very surprising about that.


    • Thanks James. Speed 2 committed the cardinal sin of wasting Willem Dafoe. But it does prove that Keanu Reeves isn’t quite as much dead wood as people say he is. There was a huge drop off in charisma between him and Jason Patric.

  2. Keanu Reeves gets a bad rap for his acting, but he definitely has screen presence. Just don’t let him anywhere near an accent!

    Remember when Jason Patrick hosted SNL and played in a sketch called “Mr. Intense?” I always got the impression they really wanted to call him “Mr. Boring.”

  3. “Speed is one of those rare movies that propels itself with enough force to hold the audience’s attention that the plotholes seem like slight bumps in the road, rather than a bridge that has disappeared out from under the director and his cast.”

    Do I detect a clever play on the word “potholes”? Or am I reading into it too much. I never…tyre…of a pun.

    I think one my favourite parts of this film are the seconds when Payne discovers that the footage is looped 🙂 The thrill of it!

  4. Spot on review – for 1990s high concept you can’t go wrong with Speed. I haven’t seen the film in ages, might have to correct that.

  5. I loved the film when it came out. Keanu is what is known in literature and now film as a “flat character.” This means that the character does not change, is fully formed, will not grow or disintegrate,does not go through a crisis and resolution, but will reflect every other character in the story. Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark and John Galt are such characters. They are criticized for being “wooden” as Keanu is. E. M. Forster has written a nice essay on this “flat character” using Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. Keanu did the same in the recent 47 Ronin.When he becomes a fighting slave he changes. It is almost done in a jump cut, and then he is flat again as this new character.I think Keanu’s problem on this is the fact that reviewers are so illiterate they don’t know things anymore.Why I read you when I want to know something even though when I see it I read the film differently from you.I always like your readings.

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