By Marc S. Sanders
Jan de Bont’s Speed is one of the best action thrillers ever made. It moves at a breakneck pace with huge suspense, big laughs and never-ending excitement. It’s also really smart with its crazy storyline.
A mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) manages to terrorize the city of Los Angeles by rigging a high-rise elevator with a bomb. Thirteen hostages need to be rescued and for an opening scene of a movie it does not get better than this. The heights and cramped space of the elevator and shaft are tightly claustrophobic, leaving you biting your nails. Small explosions come unexpectedly. This is what Hitchcock is always talking about. Putting a bomb under a table is suspense. The moment you detonate the bomb, the fear is over. De Bont blows up some bombs, but he leaves you hanging for when he’s going to set off the biggest bomb of all – the one that’ll put a hole in the world.
Later, the bomber does the same to a city wide transit bus traveling the freeway routes of rush hour traffic in the city. If the bus’ speed drops below 50 MPH, it’ll explode. Imagine pulling two tricks of Hitchcock all in one film. Imagine trying to never slow down a bus. This bad guy is destroying the city without even setting the big bomb off yet. This is great writing from Graham Yost. The whole scenario is tension at a maximum level.
The cop trying to stop the bomber is Jack Traven (at the time of release, an unlikely Keanu Reeves). Reeves is a perfect hero in this film. He allows the film to stand apart from being just another Die Hard rip-off by avoiding the Bruce Willis smart aleck stance. He’s a smart guy who keeps focus on just the situation at hand. He’ll get the bad guy later.
Sandra Bullock plays an adorable character named Annie who consequently has to drive the bus. This was Bullock’s breakthrough performance and I truly think it still holds as one her best. She’s funny, but she has some good dramatic moments as the tensions build up where Hopper’s crazed bomber makes things more difficult for Jack and the passengers. Bullock is good at crying on film, but she also knows how to deliver a line too.
De Bont does a great job at poking fun at the mundane trappings of traffic and intercity daily activity. As the bus careens through the city, pedestrian crossings are at risk, tow truck cars are problematic, cop cars are bashed up, and Annie is mindful enough to turn her blinker on as she careens around the corners. That last gag kills me every time. De Bont does what I always insist works in most films. He makes the setting of his film the character as well. This bomb rigged bus is stressing out the city of Los Angeles, for sure.
Seeing Speed holds a special memory for me. I saw it on its opening Friday night with some college buddies. Two days later, I insisted on taking dad to see it. Dad could not stop laughing through the absurdity of it all as street signs crash down, cars get totaled, and the fast editing blended with Annie’s laughable panic. Most especially, he loved a hapless driver (a scene stealing cameo from Glenn Plummer) in his gorgeous Jaguar convertible known as “Tuneman” by his license plate. Jack desperately hijacks his car as a means to catch up to the bus. As Tuneman’s car gets more and more wrecked, Dad could not get over it. He was in stitches. This is why movies can be so vital in our lives. I’ll never forget Dad’s nonstop laughing. I carry it with me forever, and I heard it again last night as I caught up with Speed. He’s gone now, but these are the moments I miss most about Dad.
A third act of the film is just as thrilling. Let’s see. We’ve done an elevator and a bus. How about a subway train? It’s a briefer sequence for the climax of the film, but it keeps the thrills ongoing.
Speed works on so many levels with a brilliant cast of B actors (at the time of 1994) that also include Joe Morton, Alan Ruck and a great Jeff Daniels as Jack’s partner with bomb experience. The action sequences cannot be complimented enough, and the Oscar nominated editing from John Wright with De Bont’s direction pair perfectly in timing.
Speed is an absolute thrill ride and a rocking great time at the movies.