Should I Watch..? Speed
What's the big deal?
Speed is an action disaster film released in 1994 and was a surprise critical and commercial success when it was first released. Directed by Jan de Bont, the film follows LAPD officer Jack Traven on a city bus rigged to explode by a mad bomber if the speed drops below 50 mph. It spawned not just a sequel - the critically mauled Speed 2: Cruise Control (1) - but also led to countless parodies and imitations. The movie stars Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels and Joe Morton. Reeves does the vast majority of the stunt work himself and displayed the sort of prowess in action roles that would ultimately lead him to play Neo in The Matrix (2) just four years later.
What's it about?
LAPD SWAT team officers Jack Traven and Harry Temple manage to thwart a bomber's scheme to hold an elevator full of people hostage in exchange for $3 million. Pursuing the bomber, Harry is suddenly held hostage by the bomber. Jack shoots Harry in the leg and the bomber manages to escape, blowing himself up in the process.
Not long after, Jack witnesses a bus explode. He is suddenly contacted by the bomber who tells him that he has rigged another bus in the city to explode if its speed drops below 50 miles per hour unless he is now paid $3.7 million. Chasing after the bus while the injured Harry remains at the station trying to identify the bomber, Jack manages to get on board. The question is how he can hope to get everyone to safety before the bus explodes?
Officer Jack Traven
Officer Harry Temple
Lt. "Mac" McMahon
Jan de Bont
Release Date (UK)
30th September, 1994
Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film Editing
What's to like?
If you looked up the ingredients for an ideal action movie then you'd probably find things like explosions, exciting action, thrilling stunt work and great performances. All of these things can be found in Speed which takes its somewhat unlikely scenario and runs full-tilt with it. The film is awash with gripping action from the very first scene and it simply never lets go until the very end. CG is kept to a minimum with a reliance of old-fashioned stunt work pushing itself to the very limit. Most action films feel repetitive, to the point of feeling safe. By contrast, this dries your mouth out as you forget to do basic things like blink and breathe. This is old-school film-making, the way it should be.
Reeves never puts a foot wrong as Jack, working out for himself how to get everyone to safety while opposite, Hopper is sublimely ridiculous as the hammy Howard Payne. Nobody can play a maniac like Hopper and he's on top form here. But amid the macho action scenes, there is plenty of humour to be enjoyed as well - Bullock provides a breezy innocence at the centre of the picture while even some of the frightened passengers like Alan Ruck's irritating tourist have their moments to shine.
- Reeves initially declined the role of Jack, feeling it was too similar to Die Hard (3). He changed his mind when Joss Whedon was brought in to do an uncredited re-write of the script including almost all of the dialogue.
- Look carefully at the side of the plane at the airport. The logo - "Pacific Courier Freight" - is an in-joke by production designer Jackson De Govia who worked on both Die Hard and Die Hard With A Vengeance (4). The same name is on the trucks the terrorists use.
- Jan de Bont's directorial debut after Renny Harlin and Quentin Tarantino both declined the director's chair. Jan was previously a cinematographer on... yep, you guessed it - Die Hard!
What's not to like?
And now, the elephant in the room. You might have noticed that all this sounds a touch familiar - a lone hero trapped in a dangerous location with only his wits to survive on. Now what does that remind you of? Yes, Speed is basically Die Hard on a bus and there is nothing to excuse that. But let's be frank - this isn't the only film guilty of such a lazy premise - Under Siege (5) relocates the action to a naval battleship and Executive Decision (6) is little more than Die Hard on a plane. There are literally countless imitators, all sticking as rigidly to the formula as this does. You can't blame the film for following its influences too closely but in no way does that ruin your enjoyment of the film.
I also felt the ending was a bit... neat. It somehow lacked the sheer power of the rest of the film, setting up one final big effect before bringing the curtain down. Call me picky (and some do) but I felt the film just ran out of steam as the ending approached. But when all is said and done, it's far better to empty your tank than keep ideas and thrills in the tank for a sequel. And speaking of which, the rightly derided sequel is a blatant rip-off of the heart and soul of this film. This is tense, exciting and brilliant whereas the impotent sequel (without Reeves, no doubt smelling a turkey) has as much excitement and enjoyment as a trip to the dentist. Puts you to sleep quicker, too...
Should I watch it?
It may be silly and extremely derivative but Speed remains arguably the best all-action picture of the Nineties. It has everything an action picture could hope to deliver, rising above the majority of other pictures to stand head and shoulders at the top of the pile. Only The Matrix and the brilliant Terminator 2: Judgment Day (7) come close but both pictures have more of a sci-fi element to them. Speed dismisses scene-setting and characterisation to simply grab your attention and take you on an explosive ride. It's magnificent.
Great For: pyromaniacs, action fans everywhere, date nights, plot-hole spotters
Not So Great For: bus passengers, people afraid of elevators, children
What else should I watch?
First, I'll start with the sequel. Speed 2: Cruise Control takes the essence of this film and throws it overboard, instead becoming a ridiculous pantomime of a picture that neither thrills or excites unless you want to watch an unintended comedy. Reeves wisely stayed away but Bullock, who perhaps needed the money, was sadly roped in to reprise as Annie who this time is trapped on a cruise ship stuck on a collision course opposite Jason Patric and Willem Dafoe. Take my word for it, it's appalling.
The brilliance of Die Hard means that it did lead to numerous rip-offs and clones, some of which are still being released today. Aside from the aforementioned films above, you have The Rock (8) which is the same premise set in Alcatraz, Sly Stallone's Cliffhanger (9) which is the same premise on a mountain, Jean-Claude Van Damme's Sudden Death (10) which is the same premise in a ice hockey stadium and the recent Olympus Has Fallen (11) was also dubbed Die Hard in the White House by some critics. I'm sure you get the picture...
© 2015 Benjamin Cox