Monday, May 23, 2011

"Speed" (1994)

Starring Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock and Dennis Hopper
Written by Graham Yost (with Joss Whedon!)
Directed by Jan de Bont
Rated R - Violence, language
Running Time: 116 Minutes

Speed [Blu-ray]Summer is usually a season overloaded with ridiculous action blockbusters.  Most of the time, these things come and go, the empty calorie junk food of cinema.  But every so often one of them comes along that is just two hours of pure awesome, and it becomes legendary.

Los Angeles police officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and his partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) manage to foil the plans of a mysterious bomber (Dennis Hopper) demanding $3 million after planting charges on an express elevator in a downtown high-rise.  Thinking the bomber dead in a suicide blast, Jack and Harry are commended for their efforts by the city and go on with their lives.  Not long after, however, Jack discovers that the bomber is alive and well and has set a new trap for Jack - There is a bomb on a bus.  When the bus goes above 50 miles per hour, the bomb is armed.  If the bus slows to below 50 miles per hour, the bomb will explode, killing everyone on board. 

While Harry tries to track down the identity and location of the bomber, Jack brazenly boards the bus by jumping from a speeding car on the freeway.  Having a cop on board spooks one of the passengers, who opens fire and accidentally shoots the driver.  A young passenger, Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) takes the wheel.  With a man on the bus dying, and rush hour traffic building, Jack finds himself embroiled in a game of wits with a madman bent on revenge.

Make no bones about it, "Speed" is a pretty ridiculous movie.  But it has the chops to take that ridiculousness and run with it, crafting a fun summer blockbuster loaded with a variety of action sequences, chases, vehicular carnage, massive explosions and plenty of cheesy one-liners.  Keen direction from Jan de Bont paired with a script ghost-written by then-unknown Joss Whedon makes "Speed" a lively action flick.

The cast on display here is pretty excellent, loaded with familiar faces and soon-to-be-superstars.  Keanu Reeves is an actor of, shall we say, limited range but he makes a perfectly credible action hero.  He shares decent chemistry with Bullock, who is much more lively and capable of selling her character as a real human being.  Dennis Hopper is clearly having a ton of fun chewing the scenery as crazed terrorist Howard Payne even though most of his interaction with Reeves' character is via cell phone.  The other side characters, including Jeff Daniels as Harry, Joe Morton as "Mac," and Alan Ruck as a nervous bus passenger are all well played by reliable character actors. 

There's plenty of comic relief to help move along the quieter moments between all the mayhem and destruction.  The script by Graham Yost, which apparently underwent major revisions under Whedon's hand, has some recurring gags ("Pop quiz, asshole...") goes to great lengths to make sure we're never bored.  It also has some truly cheesy one-liners, but all of this really just adds to the fun.

Jan de Bont directs the action with a steady hand, letting the bus slam into and through any and all obstacles in its way.  Cars are wrecked, signs smashed, people jump to and from it, get dragged along underneath, and so on.  Being a cinematographer, de Bont knows how to make sure that we see everything he wants us to see, never hiding a cheap effect with a shaky camera or what have you.

Of course, all this praise is not to say that "Speed" is perfect in any fashion.  The third act deflates a little before picking up steam once again right at the end.  Once Jack and Annie are off the bus and trying to hunt down Payne, there's a lull of a few minutes that just saps the life out of a movie that had been firing on all cylinders for the previous hundred minutes.  Of course, this is inevitable and a pretty unavoidable situation since the story really offered no other opportunity for the protagonist to deal with the villain.  The film also completely jumps off the rails when it has the bus jump a missing highway segment, a sort of physics-defying bit of lunacy that nearly ruins the rest of the film by being too absurd.  For most of its run time, "Speed" manages to walk the fine line between ridiculous and terrible, and the bus jump is definitely a key moment when it probably goes too far.

But there's a reason people remember "Speed" to this day: It's pretty friggin' awesome.  Ridiculous, yes; over the top, sure.  But awesome nonetheless.