Over the years, the words “Directed by Jon De Bont” and “Starring Keanu Reeves” have not always been recipes for awesomeness (Reeves does get points for Point Break, of course), but I guess accidents can happen. Of all the films built on the Die Hard blueprint, Speed is pretty much the only one that didn’t suck even a little.
Jack Traven (Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) are officers with the LAPD SWAT team and, as the movie opens, they responding to a hostage situation in a high-rise elevator with a bomb rigged to the main cable. After barely pulling the hostages to safety before the bomb goes off and drops the elevator into the basement, Jack and Harry catch the bomber (Dennis Hopper) trying to escape. In the ensuing confrontation, it appears that the bomber is killed by his own device.
Of course, bad guys played by Dennis Hopper don’t die in the first 20 minutes of the movie. It’s a rule. Trust me on this.
The day after Harry and Jack are decorated for their heroism in the elevator situation, a hung-over Jack gets a call from a not-hung-over-but-very-much-alive bomber. There’s a bomb on a bus. If the bus goes over 50 mph, the bomb will arm itself and then explode if the bus drops below 50 or if any of the passengers try to get off.
Jack manages to get on the bus but a twitchy passenger thinks the cops are there to arrest him and, in the struggle, the bus driver is shot, leaving the bus in the hands of Annie (Sandra Bullock). All she has to do is keep the bus going 50 mph through the teeth of Los Angeles rush hour traffic.
The beauty of Speed is that its basic setup creates a situation where the film can move almost effortlessly from one action set piece to the next without a lot of the laborious plotting that often sinks a movie like this.
That being said, this is a movie that works best if you leave your brain, if not switched off, then at least idling in neutral. The Mythbusters have done almost a season’s worth of shows proving that most of the stunts in this movie are complete bullshit. The bomber’s plan, like most plans in this kind of movie, is needlessly complicated, depending on a breathtaking number of things going perfectly for the plan to even get started, much less succeed.
The characters are not written with a whole lot of depth, either, depending on the charisma of the actors to bring off the roles. I know that, in some quarters, using “Keanu Reeves” and “charisma” in the same sentence can lead to snickering, but he wears roles like this one as comfortably as your favorite old sneakers and has some nice chemistry with Sandra Bullock. He doesn’t leave her for any porn stars, either.
The bad guy, Howard Payne, doesn’t really have a particularly well-defined motivation, but the script gives him plenty of lines and speeches that only work when Dennis Hopper is saying them. Nobody did crazy like Hopper and, even if this isn’t the most challenging work he ever did, I don’t think he was ever more crucial to the success of a film, except maybe Blue Velvet (and nothing exploded in Blue Velvet).
Within the genre it inhabits, Speed stands pretty tall. It may stand slightly in the shadow of the original Die Hard, but it can beat the shit out of all three sequels with one hand. Of course, its own sequel brought enough suck to the table for three or four films, but maybe we can agree to pretend that film didn’t really happen, sort of like a disastrous second date.