Film Review: 'Speed 2: Cruise Control' (1997)
I enjoyed the first Speed a lot. It's gripping and tense, with a cool premise, great performances, and is solid fun all around. Definitely recommended.
Three years later, we got a sequel. And in some ways, I actually find it to be the more interesting of the two films. Let's take a look at why. (Moderate spoiler warning!)
The sequel's basic premise alone has been widely ridiculed, and it's easy to see why. Instead of taking place on a fast-moving bus, we now have a much-less-fast cruise ship as our main setting. For many people, this acted in defiance of the very meaning of the word "Speed". While I can't fully disagree with the sentiment, I personally didn't have any issues with the set-up. In fact, I really like the idea of a cruise ship as the main setting. It's a great setting for an action movie in general, one which allows a lot of potential for different scenarios to play out. And the film does manage to do a lot of creative things with its setting.
That said, there are other problems at play here. Let's take a deeper dive, shall we?
The villain, John Geiger, is one of the highlights. Willem Dafoe does a good job playing him, managing to score a combination of funny, entertaining, and creepy. He's similar to Howard Payne from the first film in a lot of ways, while being quite different too. Howard Payne was cruel and sociopathic, yet strangely charming and classy at the same time.
Geiger, meanwhile, is a complete nut job, and it works. He feels even more deranged and sinister than Payne. I think overall Payne was the better villain, but the filmmakers were definitely onto something compelling with Geiger. He's the best character in the film. However, it usually doesn't speak well when your villain is more compelling than your hero, does it?
Sandra Bullock reprises her role as Annie. But instead of Keanu Reeves returning as Jack, we're introduced to a new guy named Alex, played by Jason Patric. And this right here is my first major problem with the film.
I think many people would agree with me that this would've been better if Keanu Reeves were in it. And while I do think it's a shame he didn't come back, his absence in itself isn't where my beef lies. Rather, it's the way that they handled his absence.
You see, even though they bring in the character of Alex as a replacement, he otherwise fills the exact same role that Jack did in the first film. Yep, right down to both of them being the main action hero who saves the day, both of them acting as Annie's love interest, and both of them are even SWAT officers. There are a few throwaway lines about why Annie & Jack's relationship from the first film didn't work out. But aside from that, you could take this movie's script and do a "Find & Replace" to substitute Alex's name for Jack's, and nothing else would change. This is just lazy writing.
There are three ways I think they could have handled Keanu Reeves's absence better:
1) Make Alex a more distinct character. Rather than have him be so similar to Jack, why not make Alex a foil to Jack? Or at least, give Alex some character traits that Jack didn't have. It would've added an interesting new dynamic to the film.
2) Have Jason Patric (or someone else) actually play Jack rather than play a new character. Sure, there's always a level of inconsistency when a new actor takes over the same role from someone else, but it would've made much more sense from a storytelling perspective for the focus to remain on Jack's character, instead of some random new guy whom is introduced rather awkwardly.
3) Forget about Jack/Alex entirely and make Annie the main action star. In fact, this might've been the best option. It would've given Annie a more memorable role and helped develop her further as a character. As it stands, however, she doesn't really have much to do. She played a critical role in the first film by driving the bus and helping to keep everyone alive, but sadly that is lost here.
Option #3 would've also meant taking out the romance, which I think would have done the movie a favour. There's a lingering subplot throughout of Alex and Annie being all lovey-dovey, and of Alex trying to work up the courage to propose to her. Granted, the first film had romance in it as well, and to be honest I don't think it was needed there either, but nor was it a big deal. The romance gets more focus here and it's more jarring as a result. It's tedious and it just doesn't add anything meaningful. Why not have the main male and female stars be platonic friends for a change? I'm fine with romance if it's actually well-written, but I also think there's occasions where it's unnecessary.
Speaking of Annie, Sandra Bullock doesn't do as good a job playing her as before. She gave a great performance in the first film, so I'm not sure what happened here. She's not terrible or anything, and far from the film's biggest problem, but somehow she just isn't as engaging the second time around.
A similar "passengers in distress" scenario is used here, but for some reason I don't care as much about them as I did in the first film. I can't put my finger on why exactly. Something about their plight just isn't as compelling. Similar to Sandra Bullock's performance in a way, in that it isn't executed as well the second time. Hmm, that seems to be a recurring theme here.
The strangest thing about this second film, however, is that there's a campy and goofy tone that wasn't in the first film at all. Well okay, the first film did have humour in it, but it was much more subdued, and it never took away from the constant nail-biting tension. Here, however, there's a distinct level of silliness in the way things play out.
I mean, we get goofy dialogue such as this:
Woman: "Harv, give me your pants!"
Harv: "My pants? No-one else is taking off their pants."
Other man: "I took off mine."
Harv: "I wanna know why she hasn’t taken anything off yet!"
Other woman: "Cos I’m not wearing any underwear, Harvey."
And then later on when the ship is about to crash into the mainland, and four different people say "Oh shit!" in a row.
In sharp contrast to the first film that kept getting more and more serious, the second film gets less serious as it progresses, culminating in one of the most laughable and 'impossible-to-take-seriously' climaxes I've ever seen in a non-comedy.
At least, I think this film wasn't intended as an outright comedy. It's kind of hard to tell. By and large, it seems like the filmmakers set out to deliver a tense, thrilling, high-octane adventure just like with the first Speed, and on the surface many of the same ingredients are still there. But Cruise Control is missing a lot of the more subtle touches that made the first film so refined.
As just one example, the conflict between Jack Traven and Howard Payne felt a lot more intense and personal. While John Geiger is a good villain, he doesn't have that same personal connection with the heroes. Thus, it feels like the heroes are trying to stop the villain simply for survival and because it's the hero thing to do. Which makes enough sense, but the lack of personal conflict does take away from the sense of edge and grittiness. Perhaps I'm comparing Cruise Control a little too much to its predecessor, but it's so hard not to.
Speed 2: Cruise Control is a movie that gets a lot of bile. Honestly, though, I didn't think it was that bad. It's pretty obvious I don't consider it anywhere near as good as the first Speed, but at the same time I can certainly think of worse movies.
It's definitely entertaining. Perhaps not always for the right reasons, but I never found myself bored (a few tedious Annie/Alex moments aside). There are plenty of good action scenes and a lot of spectacle, along with an interesting villain. Even the climax, as silly and over-the-top as it is, is still fun to watch. Whereas the first Speed is genuinely tense and well-crafted, Speed 2 is likewise enjoyable, but in a cheaper and campier way.
That said, it's hard for me to genuinely recommend. It's hampered by some awful dialogue, uneven characterization, and a pervading sense of missed potential. With a bit more polish and some rewrites to the script, I actually think it could have been a really solid sequel. But alas, it isn't.
One good thing I can say is that this is the movie that introduced me to the excellent UB40 song "Tell Me Is It True", so hey, there's that.
Overall, it's an okay movie. It's fun in a "turn your brain off" kind of way, but that's about it.
© 2019 Ian Rideout