Despite his tortured artist demeanor and frustratingly enigmatic career form which is more akin to Vincent Gallo than Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves is an actor who’s strangely potent potential can be compared to the unpredictable success of what you’d describe as ‘dumb action movies’. Sometimes all the elements are there, just set to work out beautifully, but the end result is an embarrassment of missed opportunity. Other times the fit doesn’t seem in any form or shape logical, but births a classic. Whenever Reeves has been sighted near art house or classy drama, seemingly his forte, he invariably stinks up the place. Read Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and Kenneth Branagh’s take on Much Ado About Nothing. However, when he’s the unlikely action hero or hopelessly miscast outlaw, his genuine ability seems to shine through; thus The Matrix, The Gift and possibly his best performance, in Jan De Bont’s 1994 iconic thrill ride Speed.
Seriously bulked up with muscle and macho, and taking a more serious tone than that displayed in a similar role in Point Break, Reeves is LAPD bomb squad hero Jack Traven. After he and his partner/best buddy Harry (Jeff Daniels) thwart an explosives laden hostage situation on an elevator at a downtown skyscraper that seemingly kills the bad guy, Traven is given a medal and some notoriety. This makes him an easy victim to the very much not dead bomber, the late Dennis Hopper’s ‘eccentric’ grenadier extraordinaire Howard Payne. Making things very personal, Payne hooks up a bus with enough earth shattering C4 to “put a hole in the world”, and uses the bus itself as a detonator; after activating the bomb by accelerating over fifty kilometers per hour, it will blow if the conveyance drops back under. Following a race against time to try and stop the public transport from triggering its own doomsday, Traven desperately puts himself on board to coordinate the unlikely (i.e. impossible) rescue of its passengers, including unlikely stand-in driver Annie (Sandra Bullock), all the while participating in mind games with Payne and solving various headache inducing crises.
It’s such a simplistically high concept and contrived set up that it shouldn’t really amount to anything other than occasionally exciting distraction, but a brilliantly cohesive team effort instead meant that Speed shone as one of the best blockbuster roller coasters of the 90’s, and a reliable source of zeitgeist parody and spoof for many years after. Naturally the action was the main cause for this fruition, as the basic plot uses three vastly differing high octane set pieces (collapsing elevator, exploding bus, unstoppable train) as a firm outline for its structure while sprinkling in various other ambushes, Mexican standoffs and drama raising confrontations throughout to keep the audience on the edge of its collective seat. Even when it veers into scientifically impossible silliness in chase of thrills, Speed never loses the viewer and instead buckles them in for the next leg of its extraordinary journey. After years spent providing cinematography for various action packed movies, Dutchman Jan de Bont takes the step up to directing with an assured effort that drills every drop of testosterone from Graham Yost’s script (post-heavy rewriting by then screenplay doc Joss Whedon).
Helping matters is a superb cast who are perfectly suited to the tone and setting. Beyond Reeves, who’s rare display of intensity and obsessive focus makes him perfect for the constantly challenged protagonist, there is Hopper reinforcing his latter-career niche as crazed villain in amiable style, Bullock in her career shaping turn as the plucky unlikely action heroine and a batch of familiar faces (including Alan Ruck and Beth Grant) firmly imprisoned on the high speed deathtrap. A large part of Speed’s hugely addictive quality comes from the very palpable chemistry between Reeves and Bullock, a romantic interest which is handled with enough subtlety and organic development to ensure its place in the action doesn’t come off as clumsy or compromised. Indeed, it provides the emotional core to a heated final climax, and the absence of such a personal touch would well have rendered the closing stages wastefully hollow. What could easily have been an egregiously shoehorned addition is instead a vital cog in the drama.
Another sharp move is the handling of the hero-villain dynamic, and de Bont clearly took heed of the killer stroke that made Die Hard (a film he worked on) so popular; the smarter the antagonist, the smarter the movie. Hopper ramps up the crazy in probably his last memorable role (with the exception of what is essentially a cameo in the same year’s superb True Romance), but there’s also a degree of sympathy about the megalomaniacal bomber, a subplot twist of sorts that further reinforces his dark bond with Reeves’ Jack. Their interactions, taking place over a mobile phone and each one raising the stakes, have a curious mix of various angles – one part Riddler-style problem solving, one part student-teacher task setting – that prevents Howard Payne from simply being a distant enabler to unlikely hi-jinks. It also means that their final confrontation, when it finally does arrive after the breathtaking cinema that has preceded it, has the right amount of significance. Intelligence and ingenuity plays a huge part in solving the puzzle of the now iconic 2525 bus.
It’s hard to figure out why, but Reeves absolutely shines here and shows acting traits which are rarely in evidence in his other work. While similar fare exploited his stance of ‘unlikely’ action hero, much like in the manner Nicolas Cage was milled around from blockbuster to blockbuster during the same era, here Reeves is so assured in his role of rogue tough cop that one is hard pressed to associate him with a different niche. His handling of action is impeccable, while the more dramatic personal moments (like his reaction to some particularly devastating news) are frighteningly authentic and ferocious. Nowhere else in his career can you find him acting in this manner, which is a terrible loss. Despite its unapologetically dumb concept and unpretentious nature, this is the only shame to be found within Speed, one of the best action movies of the 90’s, still endlessly watch-able and holding up superbly in technical terms even today, nearly twenty years after its release. In fact, its down and dirty physicality is a throwback to an era when, if anything, the rollercoaster ride was more visceral and felt much more real than in today’s CGI dominated cut-scene image.
Whatever you do, don’t pay heed to the ill-judged sequel, a piece of advice applicable to many great and unsung movies of this time period, or go into Speed with anything other than hugely satisfying entertainment in mind. Pop quiz, hotshot; what are you gonna do? What are you gonna do?