Speed

Speed. 20th Century Fox 1994.

Before watching the movie:

I’m pretty sure this is the biggest movie Keanu Reeves was in before The Matrix. In fact, as I think Bill and Ted is more cult, this might be the movie that brought Reeves into the broader cultural consciousness. I’ve always wondered a little about how the movie sustains the speeding bus premise for the entire runtime. I’m surprised to see Jeff Daniels here too, since the only cast members anybody discusses are Reeves and Bullock.

After watching the movie:

LAPD SWAT officer Jack Travern and his bomb defusal expert partner Harry Travers are dispatched to an office building with a stuck express elevator sabotaged by a bomber threatening to blow the emergency brakes and drop the people trapped inside unless he gets a multimillion dollar ransom. With some quick thinking, Jack is able to save the elevator using a crane, but soon after, the escaped bomber, as a personal revenge against Jack, blows up one city bus and tells Jack that there’s a bomb on another bus full of people that will arm when it goes over 50mph and then detonate if it goes under that speed, or if he doesn’t get his money in the next three hours, or if anyone gets off the bus. Immediately Jack goes to intercept the bus on the highway. As it has already exceeded 50mph, he boards the bus to warn and explain, and almost immediately a panicking rider afraid Jack will arrest him accidentally shoots the driver, causing passenger Annie Porter to have to take the wheel. With his SWAT colleagues providing support, Jack has to keep the passengers safe while speeding around LA traffic.

I was surprised that almost an entire act takes place before the bus itself comes into play and after the bus is resolved. The entire zeitgeist of the movie is the bus, but that’s an oversimplification or caricature. There’s a relatively robust story around it, resulting in less of a “Die Hard on a bus” movie than its reputation.

Still, probably more than half of the movie revolves around the bus and they keep it fresh and exciting, with the situation evolving even while they’re essentially NASCAR racing a bus. The title sequence is really the only dull part because it’s just slowly descending an entire elevator shaft, and you don’t realize until later that that’s meant to communicate the scale of how far the sabotaged elevator can fall.

I guess I have to address the performances, and yes, Keanu Reeves is a bit flat. But he’s doing a stoic action hero thing that I think was more common in the 90s. He has plenty of opportunities to break out of that here. Similarly, Sandra Bullock is doing what you get Sandra Bullock for. Really, everyone is a bit stock because this is plot driven, not character driven. I really enjoyed Harry’s parts because Harry is very much a likeable, expressive Jeff Daniels type, but that is almost certainly a calculation to prepare the audience response to later developments.

This movie is, to the surprise of pretty much nobody who has been around pop culture in the last 25-plus years, a whole lot of fun. It’s exciting and even without particularly deep characters, engaging. I’m actually a little disappointed that the one sequel failed so badly it effectively killed the notion of an ongoing franchise. However, Reeves seems to be doing a greatest hits tour in theaters currently, so maybe that could include another Speed that captures more of what makes the original so popular.

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