20 Years Ago
Speed was one of my very first “pure” action films. I was thirteen when it came out and was coming up on the age where my parents were warming up to the idea of me seeing R-rated films. I didn’t see it theatrically, but I nearly wore the VHS tape (remember those relics?) down to ribbons. This movie was the pinnacle of action films for a teenager still feeling a bit dangerous and sneaky by watching an R-rated movie. And it’s not like Speed is a hard R; it has some standard-issue violence and language, but nothing over-the-top. Remove a few F-bombs and it easily gets a PG-13 by today’s standards. But in 1994 it was all about firsts, and Speed was, for all intents and purposes, a rite of passage to manhood for my friends and I.
20 Years Later
Lost in the excitement of actually being allowed to watch this movie twenty years ago was just how good it is. Speed is essentially three films in one, and they’re all amazing. From the opening situation with the elevator, to the central bomb-on-bus story, to the subway showdown, Speed features more action and suspense than most contemporary genre efforts. The energy level is amazingly high, as screenwriter Graham Yost cleverly piles on twists and turns to the base notion that if a bus goes below 50 mph, it will explode. It’s a movie that never pauses, yet somehow never feels like it loses its way plot-wise.
Cinematographer-turned-director (in his directorial debut, no less) Jan de Bont makes excellent use of both skills. This was before the era of shaky bungee cam filmmaking, and, in retrospect, it seems like a bonus that you can actually tell what is going on during all of the action. This is slick filmmaking that makes the most of its locations and situations.
Casting Speed must have been a huge risk at the time. Aside from 1991’s Point Break, Keanu Reeves had never ventured into this genre, let alone as the chiseled, heroic lead. Coupled with him is newcomer-at-the-time Sandra Bullock with her “girl next door” looks and demeanor. The slam dunk was Dennis Hopper as the slimy Howard Payne, an ex-cop with an axe to grind. The way it all comes together is flawless. Reeves and Bullock have chemistry from the beginning and earn some of the film’s biggest laughs. They’re easy to root for, and Hopper is easy to root against. Mission accomplished.
Speed does contain a scene that seems to be the catalyst in dividing those who buy in to the premise and those who check out. The infamous “ramp jump” scene is, of course, absolutely ridiculous. But the movie had been so realistic up until then! Despite the proclamation, I still have never seen an incline or anything else that would allow a bus to jump fifty feet across an unfinished freeway. But so what. It’s a scene, and the rest of the movie is so polished and involving that it hardly matters.
Speed was an overwhelming success ($121 million theatrically on a $25 million budget) and has been a staple of pop culture since its release (“pop quiz, hotshot!”). It’s easy to poke fun at some of the more far-fetched scenes and, at times, cheesy dialogue, but this is still one hell of an action movie. I can’t turn it off when it’s on TV. It’s a thrilling ride each time and you kind of wish the genre would trend back toward this style; fun, entertaining, and wall-to-wall with action and stunts. Accent fun and entertaining.