“Speed” (1994) is a Non-Stop Thrill Ride


 Speed Poster“Speed” (1994) has almost everything you would want in an action film.  It’s got an interesting premise, a cool hero, great chemistry between the hero and the sidekicks and action scenes that literally don’t stop moving.  Watching it is a mindless exercise for sure, but it sure is a lot of fun.

The film immediately kicks into high gear when Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) stabs to death a security personnel who found him trying to install a bomb at a major skyscraper.  Payne blows the brakes on an elevator filled with office workers and threatens to blow the emergency brakes if he’s not paid a couple million dollars in ransom.

Called to the scene is the Los Angeles SWAT Team, which members include Jack Traven and his buddy Harry Temple.  Tavern, a cop who impulsively acts on his guts and instincts, is played by Keanu Reeves; Reeves isn’t particularly known for his portrayal of deep characters, but he is perfectly cast in this movie because deep, Traven is not.  Balancing Traven is Jeff Daniels’ Temple, the brains of the partnership who makes sarcastic jokes to every crazy suggestion Tavern makes even as he goes along with the idea.

This kind of a ying-yang duo is commonly employed in action flicks (see the Lethal Weapon series) and can quickly become clichéd without the right chemistry between cops, but Reeves and Daniels exhibit great camaraderie.  It’s both humorous and touching when Temple comments on how Traven (and Temple) get commended for Traven shooting Temple when Payne took Temple hostage.

Traven, Temple and the rest of the SWAT team are led by Lieutenant “Mac” McMahon. Mac, played by Joe Morton, is given a surprising amount of screen time considering the role, probably helped by the strong performance Morton gives as the understanding boss who trusts Traven as a good cop despite Traven’s crazy shenanigans and frequent insubordination, like when Traven disobeys Mac’s orders to stay put into action to save the workers in the elevator.

Payne isn’t too pleased with Traven’s heroics and decides to make his next extortion also an opportunity to get personal revenge.  He orchestrates a plot in which he sets a bomb on a local commuter bus that arms when the speed goes over 50 miles and explodes when it goes under it, and he ensures that Traven ends up on the bus with the hostages.  On the bus is a young female passenger named Annie (Sandra Bullock), who ends up driving the bus when the bus driver gets shot.  Annie is Traven’s sidekick on the bus, and Reeves has as good of a chemistry with Bullock as he does with Daniels.  It’s these appeals of the heroes that really make the film work.

“Crazy, not stupid” is the way that both Mac and Traven describe Payne,  and that’s a pretty accurate description of the film’s script, too.  The idea of a bus traveling at a speed no less than 50 miles per hour, in the city of Los Angeles that is notorious for bad traffic, is a preposterous premise.  Yet this crazy set-up really works because the film has a lot of fun with the bus running at 50 miles per hour.  It runs through red lights and travel on the wrong side in the local city streets, then, when the bus is back on the highway, it jumps a missing section of a yet-to-be constructed portion of a high-rise highway.

The film is nearly two hours long but it never feels that way because it doesn’t get too infatuated with its admittedly intriguing premise.  Only so much action can take place with, in and around what is essentially a gigantic box on wheels.  Realizing this, screenwriter Graham Yost wrote a script that takes the audience through an experience that is really three action films in one, which material was guided strongly with brisk pace by first-time director Jan de Bont.

The weakest link of the film is clearly Dennis Hopper.  Hopper’s Payne inflicts terror through bombs so he spends a good amount of screen time away from where action is actually taking place, but the script does a good fine of working him into the storyline.  The problem with Hopper’s Payne therefore isn’t so much in his role in the movie but rather in Hopper’s relentlessly over the top performance.  Hopper is simply painful to watch.

Great action films are almost always defined by great villains, so it’s somewhat remarkable that the film excels despite Hopper’s acting.  That’s a testament to how good the rest of the movie is.  Next to “Die Hard” (1988) and “Taken” (2008), “Speed” should be on everyone’s list of must-see mindless action flicks.


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