Rated R for violence and language
Running time: 116 min.
Release date: June 10, 1994
A mad bomber. A cop who is more bravado than brains. A city bus speeding out of control. These are the primary elements that make up the 1994 high-octane action thriller Speed. It's ridiculous in theory and there are indeed some gaps in the logic of it all, but director Jan de Bont is tasked with bringing it all together and providing the audience with one hold-your-breath moment after another. From the opening scenes of an elevator filled with hostages to the final showdown on top of a fast-moving subway train, Speed is intent on grabbing your attention and holding it. The consensus: it works. Oh, how it works!
Dennis Hopper plays the maniacal mad bomber, Howard Payne, as we meet him first. He has rigged an elevator in a 45-story sky-rise with explosives and plans to blow the emergency brakes if he is not given $3,000,000. On the scene arrive LAPD's finest in Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) to take control of the situation, much to the annoyance of Payne. We get some insight into the Reeves character, Jack, when he suggests shooting the hostage as a method of stopping a criminal. This insight comes into play later on when Jack manages to make his way onto a bus full of passengers who unknowingly sit atop a bomb. The way Jack manages to get onto a moving bus on the freeway is one of the more insane stunts seen on-screen, giving us another indication into Jack's brawn-over-brains instincts. Now comes the gimmick of the plot: the bus bomb is triggered when the bus reaches 50 mph and is rigged to explode if it drops under 50 mph. This plot device carries us through the bulk of the film, giving us plenty of scenes of the bus crashing into cars as it plows its way through traffic in an effort to stay above 50. There are plenty of tense moments throughout the movie, including a scene where the bus is travelling down an unfinished section of freeway where it encounters a 50-foot gap in the construction. Can a bus that can't move any faster than 70 mph gain enough steam to jump a 50-foot gap? The movie doesn't really lend itself to logical questions like that, but it sure does make you jump out of your seat and cheer the bus on. Meanwhile, Jack is in constant contact with the crazy bomber as well as Jack's cop buddies as they try to figure out who Payne is and where he might be located. The film doesn't start and stop with just action on (and under) the bus; we also get a finale on a subway train that will keep your fingers digging into the arm of the person you're watching with. Speed literally keeps the action moving from the first scene to the last, and keeps things interesting so that we're not just watching a bus whiz through traffic. There are also some moments of humor involving the bus passengers, the main passenger being Annie, played by Sandra Bullock, who gets some of the funnier lines in the film.
Jan de Bont previously had been the cinematographer on such films as Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October and Lethal Weapon 3, so he is definitely experience with filming action scenes. Speed has the feel of a filmmaker who has been making this type of film for a long time. The key here is that de Bont has built up the tension and energy, providing a lot of dazzle to a story that could have been clichéd. de Bont lets a scene play out through to its conclusion before the story cuts away to scenes like Jeff Daniels attempting to figure out the mystery of Howard Payne, before we are right back on the bus for a new taut-filled roadblock for Jack and the passengers.
Keanu Reeves has played cops before, such as in the film Point Break, but here he plays it a little different. The character of Jack is chastised early in the film for not being the best thinker. He is a man of action with no thought towards consequences, as we see in the manner he boards the bus while it is still moving. This makes the interplay between Jack and Payne interesting because now Jack actually has to use his brain to outsmart the maniac villain. Reeves plays it cool, only showing a chink in the armor when he believes his support system (ie. his partner, Harry) has hit a dead end. Reeves takes a brash character and makes him likable with the way he interacts with the other bus passengers. Meanwhile, if you need a madman in your cast, you call Dennis Hopper. As Howard Payne, Hopper gets to chew all the scenery and play it over-the-top, like we expect from our action movie villains. Hopper does not disappoint here and makes the perfect foil for the action-first think-later Jack. Sandra Bullock, as Annie, provides some of the comic relief as well as the potential love interest for Jack. Bullock gives Annie some spunk and humor that is welcome in a movie that contains quite a bit of macho and crazy. It should be noted that Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) plays a tourist who finds himself on the wrong bus. Ruck gets one of the funniest lines in the movie just by saying ".........Oh darn."
Speed gets everything right in terms of tension and energy and is the perfect popcorn film for action-movie lovers. The cast all give outstanding performances and Jan de Bont's experience in filming action scenes gives us an expertly-crafted movie. For being his first directorial effort, he gives us something that we have come to expect from veterans such as John McTiernan or Tony Scott. The action is so great that we can forgive the story for its momentary lack of logic in a couple of spots. There are just some times when you don't want to think while watching a movie, and this is the perfect movie for that.