When it comes to action movies you don’t have to reinvent the genre every time out. Audiences are hungry for engaging characters to root for, a dastardly villain to jeer and some exciting action set pieces to get their pulses racing. Speed (1994) does just that. While it certainly didn’t win any points for originality – it’s basically Die Hard (1988) on a bus – the movie is so effortlessly entertaining that its flaws seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Every time I watch Speed I get caught up in the action and marvel at the fantastic chemistry between its two leads – Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. And to think the former was considered something of a gamble at the time despite previously starring in the modestly successful cops and surfers action movie Point Break (1991). The latter was something of an unknown commodity herself, appearing previously in a string of forgettable supporting roles in movies like The Thing Called Love (1993) and Demolition Man (1993). The success of Speed changed both of their careers and how the media and the public at large perceived them.
When an explosion strands a group of people in an express elevator between the 29th and 30th floors in a high-rise office building in downtown Los Angeles, SWAT are called in to rescue these poor folks before the mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) blows the emergency brakes in 23 minutes unless he gets three million dollars. Leading the charge is Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels), a young hotshot and a cynical veteran respectively, that are introduced hurtling through the air in their in the same kind of fashion as seen in early Tony Scott and Michael Bay action movies.
Jack and Harry have a tried and true dynamic that is familiar in these kinds of movies with the former being a cocky guy who thinks outside the box while the latter is an endless source of sarcastic remarks. They are also very good at their job, so much so that they manage to thwart the bomber in an excitingly tense sequence. It looks like the bomber blew himself up, but when a bus explodes near Jack’s favorite coffee shop (such a ‘90s staple), our intrepid hero is contacted by the bomber and told of a specific bus that has a bomb on it that will arm itself once it reaches 50 miles per hour and blow up if it then goes below that speed. Jack has to find it and then figure out a way to either disarm the bomb or get the passengers off without the bomber’s knowledge. He’s aided in this endeavor by Annie (Sandra Bullock), one of the bus passengers.
I like the little bits of business in the movie, like the attention paid to some of the bus passengers, most notably Alan Ruck’s good-natured yet annoyingly overly chatting tourist and how Annie comes up with a lame excuse, like gum on her seat, in order to move away from him without hurting his feelings. It is things, like that moment, that provide bits of insight into these characters and makes them more relatable. There are also moments of levity like Glenn Plummer’s understandably irked car owner providing a humorous commentary to Jack commandeering his vehicle and then driving like a maniac to catch the bus. These moments are used judiciously to help alleviate the tension at key junctures in the movie.
In 1994, Keanu Reeves was still known mostly for independent movies like River’s Edge (1986) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) and dabbling in studio fare like Parenthood (1989) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). If there were any questions about his leading man credentials prior to Speed, they were quashed by the movie’s massive success. I like that De Bont makes a point of showing Jack thinking things through and figuring out that the bomber is in the building at the beginning of the movie. And so, the beauty of Speed is that it’s not just a battle of wills between Jack and the bomber, but also of wits. Reeves does a fine job in the thankless stereotypical action hero role. The actor doesn’t inject too much personality into the character beyond acting heroic, but comes to life in his scenes with Sandra Bullock who temporarily frees him from the constraints of his underwritten role and actually steals many of their scenes together. That being said, he excels at the physical stuff, building on the action chops he displayed in Point Break and anticipating the even loftier action movie notes he would hit with The Matrix films.
I like that Annie isn’t your typical damsel in distress and Sandra Bullock doesn’t play her that way. She takes the wheel of the bus after the driver is incapacitated and offers witty, witheringly sarcastic remarks, like when Jack asks her if she can drive it (“Oh sure, it’s just driving a really big Pinto.”). She engages in amusing, Joss Whedon-flavored banter with Jack, which helps break up the tension every so often. Annie is not an ultra-confident action heroine, but just someone trying to do the best they can under extraordinary circumstances. It is this appealing girl-next-door quality that audiences fell in love with and transformed Bullock into America’s sweetheart for a few years. With her adorable good looks and spunky charm, Bullock is very likeable as Jack’s foil. There is something inherently appealing about her that makes you like the actress. Annie not only shows resilience in the face of overwhelming danger, but also a vulnerability that is refreshing in an action movie and quite endearing.
It doesn’t hurt that Bullock has terrific chemistry with Reeves. It’s not something you can manufacture: it either exists or it doesn’t and the two actors play well off each other as Annie humanizes Jack. They make a good team working together to keep the bus moving while he tries to figure out how to get everyone off safely. It’s really only until the final showdown with the bomber that she’s reduced to a stereotypical damsel in distress role. The success of Speed paved the way for an ill-conceived sequel that Reeves wisely opted out of, leaving Bullock to try and recreate the magic of the first one with Jason Patric, whom she did not have good chemistry with like she did with Reeves, which can’t be stated enough.
Thanks to his memorable turn in Blue Velvet (1986), Dennis Hopper enjoyed a string villainous roles in several movies (see Super Mario Bros., Red Rock West, Waterworld, and so on) and he looks to be clearly relishing a mad bomber character that alternates between gleefully tormenting Jack and ranting about what he’s owed. Hopper’s baddie isn’t your typical movie psycho, but a guy with a specific agenda that gradually becomes apparent over the course of the movie.
Having learned from master action movie director John McTiernan where he was the cinematographer on Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October (1990), Jan de Bont shows considerable action chops on Speed, from the daring elevator rescue that kicks things off to the preposterous jump the bus makes over a large section of missing freeway. De Bont understands that what makes most top-notch action movies work is dynamic editing. Kinetic action is best conveyed with the right amount of editing so that when something dramatic is happening the movie often cuts to a reaction shot of someone, for example, to show how he or she are dealing with it. No matter how implausible the action if the actors sell it, we’ll believe it, much like the aforementioned bus jump.
Screenwriter Graham Yost had cut his teeth writing for television and found himself between jobs when he wrote the screenplay for Speed – then called Minimum Speed. He finally got a job writing for Full House when he got the call that his Speed script had sold. He soon quit the sitcom. Jan de Bont was developing a movie about skydiving at Paramount Pictures when he was shown the script for Speed. He liked the premise and wanted it to be his directorial debut, sticking with the project even when the studio put it in turnaround and it eventually migrated over to 20th Century Fox. However, he wasn’t the first choice to direct with the likes of John McTiernan and Walter Hill approached, but both of who turned the project down.
For the role of Jack Traven, the studio approached Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks and then Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. Someone mentioned Keanu Reeves and Yost remembered that he was quite good in Parenthood. The actor was initially hesitant to do the movie after reading Yost’s script: “There were situations set up for one-liners and I felt it was forced – Die Hard mixed with some kind of screwball comedy.” Coming off Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993), Reeves spent two months in the gym in order to look the part of a police officer. He immersed himself in the role, training with the actual LAPD SWAT, which inspired him to get a military-style haircut. This freaked out some studio executives who felt the look was a little extreme. He further immersed himself in the role by also picking out his character’s clothes. While Speed was in production, Reeves’ good friend and fellow actor River Phoenix died from a drug overdose. De Bont adjusted the shooting schedule so that Reeves had a chance to deal with it.
As originally written, Annie was an African-American paramedic and at some point, Halle Berry was approached. Yost wanted someone funnier for the part and thought of Ellen DeGeneres. The studio wanted actresses like Meryl Streep and Kim Basinger, both of whom passed because they didn’t buy into the movie’s premise. The studio didn’t want Sandra Bullock and De Bont had fight for her: “I couldn’t see Julia Roberts driving this bus. I could not see several other actresses … I felt I needed an actress who you could believe would have taken the bus and Sandra had this kind of every day look – I mean that in a good way – in the way she dresses, the way she behaves, very casual.” De Bont brought Bullock in to audition with Reeves several times to not only convince the studio that she was right for the role, but to also develop a rapport between the two actors that would be readily evident in the final movie. At the very last moment, the studio relented and allowed him to cast her.
Everyone agreed that the script needed work and a week before principal photography was to begin, De Bont brought in Joss Whedon, then a script doctor on films like The Quick and the Dead (1995) and Waterworld (1995), to do some revisions, which involved, according to Yost, rewriting almost all of the dialogue. He also cut back on some of Jack’s superficial humor and made him a more earnest character, tweaked the plot, like showing how Jack was able to track down Dennis Hopper’s bomber, and changed Alan Ruck’s character from a lawyer who is killed to a tourist. De Bont remembers, “I would call him early in the morning and say, ‘Joss, I need two lines for this.’ And then he’d call me back 10 minutes later. He’d come up with some great little sayings that were basically continuing the tension, while at the same time pushing some relief into it as well.” De Bont came up with the action set pieces, like the 50-foot bus jump, that he had always wanted to see in a movie.
Speed enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “All of this is of course gloriously silly, a plundering of situations from the Indiana Jones and Die Hard movies all the way back to the Perils of Pauline, but so what? If it works, it works.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The summertime no-brainer needn’t be entirely without brains. It can be as savvy as Speed, the runaway-bus movie that delivers wall-to-wall action, a feat that’s never as easy as it seems.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Nothing Speed puts on screen, from fiery explosions to mayhem on the freeway, hasn’t been done many times before, but De Bont and company manage to make it feel fresh and exciting.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “It’s a pleasure to be in the hands of an action filmmaker who respects the audience. De Bont’s craftsmanship is so supple that even the triple ending feels justified, like the cataclysmic final stage of a Sega death match.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson praised Sandra Bullock’s performance: “If it weren’t for the smart-funny twist she gives to her lines – they’re the best in the film – the air on that bus would have been stifling.”
Like any good action movie thrill ride, Speed puts its characters through its paces by confronting them with one danger after another. What makes this movie so appealing is how Jack and Annie work together to figure out and overcome the obstacles that confront them. Not every problem is solved with a gun like in so many action movies from the 1980s. In fact, in Speed, guns are rendered useless, forcing Jack to be much more resourceful. If there isn’t much depth to these characters it’s because there doesn’t need to be. Speed has nothing more on its mind then to be an entertaining ride and on that level it works like gangbusters.
Bierly, Mandi. “Speed 20th Anniversary: Screenwriter Graham Yost Looks Back on the ‘Bus Movie’ That Became a Classic.” Entertainment Weekly. June 10, 2014.
Gerosa, Melina. “Speed Racer.” Entertainment Weekly. June 10, 1994.
Kozak, Jim. “Serenity Now! An Interview with Joss Whedon.” In Focus. August/September 2005.
Tapley, Kristopher. “Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves and Jan de Bont Look Back at Speed 20 Years Later. HitFix. June 10, 2014.