Get ready for rush hour.
Here’s a classic action movie that does its darndest to make you stay away from public transportation. It starts with a bomb on a bus and then moves on to a subway train. However, it would be a mistake to stay away – from this film. Once it gets going it’s like The Terminator (1984); it cannot be stopped.
Cinematographer Jan De Bont had worked on several previous action movies, but it is safe to say that few people expected him to do such an outstanding job in his directing debut (and I guess few expected him to fall from grace as quickly as he did after this film and Twister). It begins with a mad bomber, later revealed to be ex-cop Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), who’s going to blow up a trapped elevator full of people unless he’s paid money. A SWAT team is called to the scene and officers Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) manage to rescue the bomber’s victims and foil his plan. However, Payne gets away and decides to both have his revenge and get that money. A few days later, Jack becomes witness to a bus exploding and he subsequently takes a phone call where Payne tells him that another bus is loaded with a similar bomb that will go off if the speed drops to below 50 miles per hour. Jack learns which bus it is and goes after it, eventually ending up on board. As he works with his colleagues on the SWAT team to try and come up with a way to disarm the bomb without stopping the bus, Jack also does his best to help Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) drive the unruly vehicle after the driver is accidentally incapacitated. It is indeed going to be an exhausting day for officer Traven.
Almost no blood whatsoever
We’ve all seen cars fly through the air, crash into things and jump over hurdles in action movies… but a city bus? Can it do that? Yes, it can, but not easily, and those sequences are pretty exhilarating, especially the one where the bus has to get by a huge gap in the highway. The reason why I made a comparison with The Terminator is that De Bont’s film has the same kind of merciless pace, the same kind of pulse; it just keeps going and there is no letup. At the same time it bucks the trend set by previous violent action pictures; this one has a few deaths, but not many, features almost no blood whatsoever and very little actual violence. It shows that films of this type can be created without reveling in gore. There is also a positive (albeit somewhat make-believe) feeling in the portrayal of the characters; people on that unfortunate bus know each other as they go through the same routine every morning and the most charming passenger, Annie, becomes the center of events as she grabs the steering wheel. Bullock got her big breakhrough in that part, using her sweet girl-next-door persona to great effect. Reeves is also very likeable as the crafty cop, humorously supported by Daniels as his colleague; Hopper, however, basically comes off as your average nutcase and is hardly inspiring. The production values are high; editor John Wright’s work is one reason why the action is so tight, and Mark Mancina’s score is simple but highly charged.
The film obviously borrows from Die Hard (1988), one of the predecessors De Bont worked on as a DP. This is pure high concept and the whole idea with the bus that must never stop is in a way more memorable than the highrise-under-siege theme. The prologue and epilogue to the bomb-on-the-bus story also serve as a perfect framework, creating variation in a movie that otherwise might have become somewhat repetitive.
Speed 1994-U.S. 116 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Mark Gordon. Directed by Jan De Bont. Screenplay: Graham Yost. Music: Mark Mancina. Editing: John Wright. Cast: Keanu Reeves (Jack Traven), Dennis Hopper (Howard Payne), Sandra Bullock (Annie Porter), Jeff Daniels, Joe Morton, Alan Ruck.
Trivia: Jeff Bridges and Ellen DeGeneres were allegedly considered for the parts of Jack and Annie. Yost was allegedly inspired by the script for Runaway Train (1985). Followed by Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997).
Oscars: Best Sound, Sound Effects Editing. BAFTA: Best Editing, Sound.
Last word: “I remember first watching it in the Little Theater on the Fox lot. I thought the elevator sequence was good. It wasn’t exactly as I imagined it, but it was pretty good. And then the moment Keanu jumped on the bus and the bus sequence started, I just realized, I just had this thought – Oh my God, my life is changing right now as I sit here.” (Yost, The Wrap)