Movie of the Week: Speed (1994)

Jan de Bont directs Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock and Dennis Hopper in this action movie where a mad bomber rigs a commuter bus to explode if it drops below 50 miles an hour.

A pure movie, streamlining itself to a rhythm of set-up, tension, incident, recovery over and over again with near orgasmic brio. Like a seven course meal the sizes of each set piece of cliffhanger or carnage is served in exactly the right portions. We want to see the bus off the freeway and in the populated streets for a while but not so long that we ever get bored of cars been tailgated, pedestrians imperilled or parking meters displaced. Once we reach the midway point and the bus has literally had to learn to fly to keep on moving, de Bont knows it is time to get other clocks ticking and find a way to defuse the situation before any of the countdowns reach zero. But only the very millisecond immediately before. He knows there is a cinema full of rubberneckers who need to see that bus go boom, the screen fill with high octane orange and the Dolby Speaker system vibrate off its hinges. We even quite over-generously get bookending action sequences on a dangling elevator and a runaway subway train just so the experience feels utterly OTT.

Maybe the real marvel of Speed was it was a genuine sleeper. $30 million dollars shouldn’t look this monumental, even back in 1994. Made for a third of what your contemporary Cameron, Spielberg or McTiernan would cost, starring people not particularly guaranteed to open a movie. The True Lies director must have been particularly perturbed that Arnie crashing a Harrier jump jet through skyscrapers to save his daughter had less cultural impact than Ted from Bill & Ted and the kooky girl sidekick from Demolition Man surfing into a crowd of red rubber bollards did… for a fraction of what his movie spent. De Bont’s explosive rattler may have cost a lot less but it feels like a billion dollar event movie… shot in the real world and with very little of the stunt work or seamless practical FX showing any age. A big telephone or two aside… I doubt an unprompted kid would cotton on to this being a 27 year old film.

The unexpected quality and entertainment this gifted us all in 1994 meant everyone involved’s career was given a major bump. Keanu Reeves went from slightly spaced out himbo to the sharpest cut action star on the A-List. His surfer dude cool matured overnight into a man of proficient action. Jack Traven, dedicated cop, with his Boy Scout manners and daredevil drive is a wonderful overlap of Elliot Ness and Ethan Hunt. I’m surprised we didn’t see Hollywood try to crowbar every pretty boy into this new type of hero… not a wise cracker but a do-er, no backstory just well trained capability. Alas, the age of the superhero was gearing up. These Die Hard derivations were slowly on the way out of the green lighters graces. I’m not entirely sure audiences ever stopped buying tickets for the good ones though?? This actually owes as much if not more to The Taking of Pelham 123 as it does the John McClane saga.

Dennis Hopper has a blast as the unhinged villain. My favourite line as he finally gets his hands on the ransom: “Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric.” His elaborate death traps are so well planned you kinda want to see the loon rewarded for all his hard deranged work. And Sandra Bullock became a household name as the cute girl who ends up driving the bus while everyone else is jumping on, off and under it. She dazzles here… her chemistry with Reeves is scorching and they never should have dared a sequel without both of them back on board. I covered Speed 2 here… a late in the day legacy Speed 3 with Jack and Annie reunited though? I’d be in.

Props also to Mark Mancina’s rousing score, Josh Whedon’s hip dialogue rewrite work and Billy Idol’s absolute banger of a theme song. They only ever made them like this once. As Keanu says when he’s down between Sandra’s legs checking things out. “It’s clean.” Clean? Absolutely flawless.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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