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How times have changed. Nowadays, when we think of the stars of Jan de Bont’s Speed we think about how Sandra Bullock hangs out in space and Keanu Reeves has murdered everyone. But, once upon a time, back in the long-forgotten year of 1994, Bullock and Reeves were simple bus conducting folk contending with some dodgy special effects and a whole lot of heart.
After foiling a bombing attempt on an elevator filled with office workers, along with his partner Harry Temple (played by Jeff Daniels and thus making them a sort of mishmash “Dumb and Ted”), Reeves’ LAPD officer, Jack Traven isn’t given much time to breathe. The next morning, the same anonymous bomber places a bomb on a bus that will explode if it speed drops below 50. Cue plenty of high adrenaline action and quippy one-liners as Jack, Bullock’s passenger Annie Porter, and the rest of the police force race against the clock to save the commuters and discover the terrorist’s identity.
Of course, we, the audience, are way ahead of the LAPD. We know the bomber it is in fact Dennis Hopper. Before becoming king of the ocean in Waterworld, in Speed he was king of the road as Henry Payne: an evil ex-police-officer-turned-bomber using his knowledge of explosives to extort money from the government. There’s something adorably naive about his belief that he will somehow get his money, but then again who doesn’t want to imagine a world where Payne and Hans Gruber are sitting on a beach making 20%?
Watching Speed now is an exercise in recognition: alongside already established and up-and-coming stars, you’re likely to notice Patrick Fischler in his first film role as one of the hostages and Beth Grant doing (admittedly a gentle version of) her judgmental-lady thing. All these enthusiastic performances bring a lot to the film. Thanks to the chemistry Reeves and Bullock clearly shared, the budding relationship between Jack and Annie works far better than it does in the average blockbuster. This is helped by the fact that they are genuinely working together to save the passengers. Or at least, they are until the end when Annie disappointingly becomes the film’s damsel in distress. But for the majority of the film – and indeed for the story arc Speed is remembered for – the gender dynamics are reasonably healthy.
The film has a couple of funny moments which seem like they might be unintentional. These include the hostage who loses her shoe and Jack’s first jump onto the speeding bus which seems… more like a fall. This is explained by the fact that Reeves himself did the stunt. Knowing that, I’m sort of impressed it made the final cut: I could certainly imagine Tom Cruise being royally pissed off with any shot that made him look in any way less than entirely competent. And of course, there is also the entirely unbelievable bus jump which one has to imagine stretched credulity even in the backwards world of 1994.
However, overall the film is quite pleasantly aware of its own absurdity, and at times the collateral damage is played for laughs. The supreme example of which is the wonderfully silly scene in which Annie accidentally drives through a pram, which flies through the air only for it to be revealed, as Jack puts it, that there are “no babies, just cans.” It’s made particularly entertaining by that fact that Reeves couldn’t keep a straight face for the delivery – or that Jack found a moment of levity in an otherwise trying day. Either way, it’s a scene that keeps on giving.
It’s quite interesting to learn how the script came together due to casting choices. Initially, Jeff Daniel’s Temple was supposed to be the villain until the casting of Hopper. And according to screenwriter Joss Whedon, thanks to the input of Reeves, Jack was changed from “a maverick hotshot” to “the polite guy trying not to get anybody killed.” Indeed even throughout the final cut of Speed Jack learns to be more polite and friendly (and less violent) after acting like quite the jerk in the initial elevator set-up. Is this some actual character development in an action film? I’ll take it!
Speed has been back in the headlines recently over the revelation that Reeves and Bullock both secretly had crushes on each other during filming. The consummate professionals they were – or indeed weren’t in this case (cue Beavis and Butthead laugh) – caused them to look beyond their own desires to deliver instead 150 minutes of nail-biting, bus-maneuvering, action. Will there ever be a further film? That currently seems unlikely. But while Speed 2 didn’t achieve any measure of success and left the franchise dead in the water, we do at least have Craggy Island’s unofficial Speed 3 to remind us of what could have been.