“There’s a bomb on a bus.”
Those are the words that set off one of the great action pictures of the ‘90s- Speed. This is the movie that shot Keanu Reeves into action fame and made itself out to be not only a great action movie, but a non-stop thrill ride that feels even more impressive twenty-five years after it rushed into theaters. So, why is Speed so entertaining? What sets it apart from other action pictures and why was it so successful despite being a sleeper hit?
Much like Runaway Train and The Bullet Train, Speed tells the story of a city bus that, should it go below a speed of 50 MPH, will explode due to a bomb planted on it! To make matters worse, the story takes places in a city with some of the worst traffic in the United States- Los Angeles. It’s a problem because once the bomb is armed, the bus becomes a missile in the heart of the city and threatens anyone near it. S.W.A.T Officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) is familiar with the bomber’s plan and has dealt with him before, but this time the clock is ticking, the bus’ passengers are in danger and the only thing it can do is keep on speeding ahead!
The story by Graham Yost was heavily inspired by the two earlier films aforementioned, although his script was heavily rewritten by script doctors, which notably included Joss Whedon (who went on to write and direct The Avengers). According to Yost, Whedon wrote nearly 98% percent of the film’s dialogue. Originally, the script said that the bomb is armed when traveling at 20 MPH, it was a friend who would suggest 50 MPH to make it more intense. Additionally, the character of Traven was rewritten once Reeves was cast. He felt that there were “situations set up for one-liners and I felt it was forced—Die Hard mixed with some kind of screwball comedy.” Whedon was brought in by Director Jan de Bont, who worked as Director of Photography for such action films as Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October.
Die Hard Director John McTiernan was approached first to direct but declined, feeling it was another retread of his film but suggested Jan de Bont for the job. 20th Century Fox, who distributed Die Hard, green-lit the project on the condition that action sequences took place outside of the bus to keep the movie more engaging for the audience. This decision was the right thing to do as Speed is a movie that dares you to not to be bored with.
The movie begins when a bomber (Dennis Hooper) rigs an elevator with a collection of bombs and demands money or else everyone in the elevator will become expendable. This is where we meet the characters who play a crucial role in the film’s entirety. We have Jack and his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) who investigate the bomb and eventually meet the bomber face-to face! After all the ensue, a bus is rigged with a bomb and now we must hold onto our seats because the thrills never let up. From the elevator bomb sequence, to Jack racing across town to locate the bus, the bus traveling city streets in an intense and very well directed sequence and finally that iconic jump! Speed is best described as white-knuckle entertainment!
Also starring in the film is Annie (Sandra Bullock) a bus passenger who ends up doing all the driving once the chaos ensues. Joe Morton is Lieutenant Mac, who does his best to keep the people of Los Angeles safe from harm and, of course, the villain played by the great and, sadly gone, Dennis Hopper. To add the to the intensity of the film is the wonderful musical score from Mark Mancina, which I think is one of his best, second to Twister.
While most action films generally involve a lot of car chases, gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, Speed is all about surviving a bus that could explode at any moment while the bomber sits back and watches from the sidelines. The movie is intense because it feels as if we are passengers on the bus going along for the ride. Like Roger Ebert said in his review, “Films like Speed belong to the genre I call Bruised Forearm Movies, because you’re always grabbing the arm of the person sitting next to you. Done wrong, they seem like tired replays of old chase clichés. Done well, they’re fun. Done as well as Speed, they generate a kind of manic exhilaration”.
Interestingly there wasn’t much marketing for this film, as it released to little fanfare on June 10, 1994. It was word of mouth that got people interested in Speed and, with a budget of only $30 Million, went on to gross over $350 Million! A huge success. Much like Reeves’ John Wick, it too was a sleeper hit and has now gained international recognition. The ‘90s are among my favorite decade of movies to watch, simply because to me, they were perfectly made. Computer Generated Images were starting to become popular, notably with The Matrix, but with Speed all the action looks real because it was really shot that way. In fact, Reeves wasn’t supposed to jump onto the moving bus, a stunt man was, but when Reeves actually jumped it terrified the director!
Being twenty-five years old, Speed is still amazing to watch. It hasn’t aged a day even though the actors have. I’m still waiting to hear that Speed will be re-released in theaters because I’d pay full price to experience it on the big screen again. Of all the movies that Keanu Reeves has done, Speed is still one of my favorites and, as an action film, it certainly ranks high. It’s two hours of your life that will excite you, thrill you and more than likely make you want to watch it again. Of course, I’ve been to Los Angeles and I certainly know that if a situation like that were ever to happen, it wouldn’t end well.
So, take time to experience One of the Greatest Action Movies ever made and relive the thrill of ‘90s entertainment. I think we all know that Speed is preposterous and over-the-top but, in terms of sheer fun, there’s simply no substitute for anything quite like Speed.
Get ready for rush hour.