There’s no pop quiz required here, hotshot…
No other actor in movies has routinely (almost unknowingly) appeared in so many different films that ripped up the action movie rule book and nuked it to the moon than the beloved entity the world knows as Keanu Reeves. In the 90’s alone he popped up in 3 high octane, pulse pounders that redefined how we view that genre that predominantly expresses itself in roaring explosions, screeching tyres and the sound of various calibre of bullets being emptied into bad guys, but for the sake of THIS review, we’ll focus on the second. After the post-modern bromance of Point Break, but before the reality shaking sci-fi of The Matrix and the slick slaughters of John Wick; the world was treated to a massive dose of Speed – a high-concept, rollercoaster retooling of Die Hard that places it’s characters on a careening bus and then pours lashings of peril all over them for our entertainment.
Disgruntled (to put it lightly), retired bomb disposal expert Howard Payne just happens to be crazier than a shit house rat and has decided that the best way to supplement on his meager pension is to plant a bomb somewhere in LA and hold people to random. After his first attempt is foiled by pathologically reckless SWAT-dude Jack Traven and his older and wiser partner Harry, Payne fakes his death and then tries again, targeting Jack as an act of revenge. The rules are simple, there’s a bomb on a bus, once the bus goes above 50 miles per hour the bomb is armed, if the speed of the bus then drops below 50… KABOOM. Jack manages to locate the bus and board it in typically gung ho fashion while sparking up a relationship with gutsy commuter Annie, who is forced to drive the bus after the original driver catches a stray bullet (it… it’s a long story) and the two have to negotiate the busy streets in a giant, four-wheeled, diesel guzzling javelin that isn’t exactly renowned for it’s maneuverability while dealing with a seemingly endless queue of obstacles that constantly threaten to turn them and the other passengers into a giant, 90’s-style, orange fireball (fire in 90’s flicks always looks far hotter than flames from other cinematic decades for some reason). While Harry races to figure out how to diffuse the device and Howard cackles loudly from his bombers lair, Jack and Annie wrack their brains and test their luck just to survive another second – who will come out on top? The winner will have to think… fast.
A virtually flawless thrill-ride that violates every rule and convention in the action movie playbook, Speed is an amazing cinematic experience dedicated to relentless forward momentum, even the first and third act contains a precariously dangling lift and an out-of-control subway train respectively. There may not be another 90’s action film in existence that is so gosh-darn likable as Speed, a film that somehow doesn’t play by the usual rules of the genre. There is no rampant gun play (you can count the amounts of bullets Traven actually fires on the fingers Paynes mutilated hand with digits to spare), nothing that could techincally be call a car chase and only one measly fist fight but yet the movie is one of the most successful examples ever made of a movie having you teeter on the edge of your seat.
The key to this all working so well is primarily the white hot chemistry between it’s two insanely lovable leads – Keanu Reeves is young, dumb and full of gun as the headstrong, yet hugely respectful Traven (“You drove very well!”) and Sandra Bullock utterly steals the film with the heroically sassy Annie. Considering that the majority of their dialogue is looped (they’re filming on an actual moving bus), their lines spark off each other all over the place like a downed power line in a lightning storm.
Oh, and speaking of lines… Speed boasts some of the glorious over the top one liners in a genre fucking LOADED with them. “Anything else keeping the elevator from falling?” Asks Joe Morton’s Captain, not unreasonably during the prologue “Yeah, the basement.” dead-pans Jack, apparently blissfully unaware that stating that is somewhat of a dick move.
But then, nothing is too overblown for this movie – from Jack Traven’s entrance in his car that’s virtually launched over the audience like the Star Destroyer in the opening shot from Star Wars, to the magnificent, ramped up villainy of Dennis Hopper (who stabs a poor fucker in the ear with a screwdriver mere seconds after being introduced) who hams things up mercilessly and creating the gold standard for every serious actor whoever “sold out” and played a bad guy in a big Hollywood movie.
In fact it’s the battle between Howard’s barking mad intelligence and Jack’s bravado and luck that’s the other driving force of the movie which manages to make the super-humanly virile Reeves the underdog as it’s established that Traven isn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the set but has a set of brass balls the size of space hoppers which barely allows him to keep up.
It’s a testament to the sheer enthusiasm and likeability of the film that even when the bus ridiculously jumps a 50 foot gap, it manages not to jump the shark (although the subway train section admittedly strains credulity in the final stretch) which invests the audience totally in the gonzo goings on – it’s the first time I ever heard a cinema audience cheer and clap at the end.
In fact the only disappointing thing about the movie is what happened to the quality control of director Jan De Bont after this, his first film (stunningly, his directorial debut after a lucrative career as a cinematographer) and his output drastically spiraled to the point where he helmed one of the worst movies of all time with Speed 2: Cruise Control.
But despite this, Speed remains evergreen and really should be brought up more as a leading light of action cinema as it’s atypical approach to the genre and it’s placing the importance of character front and centre makes it fiercely original even now.
If you haven’t hopped on this bus recently, I highly suggest that you might wanna get yourself back up to…. well, y’know…