Sex bomb goes off
The only thrill in Speed, in which a bus will blow up if driven at less than 50mph, is Keanu Reeves. But that's quite a lot of thrill. Keanu Reeves is for 1990s girls what Brigitte Bardot was for 1960s boys; possessor of a beauty so iconic and blatant, so extreme and self-contained, so cruel and unusual, that a simple sentence such as "I don't see it, myself'' spoken of him can reduce a room to laughter.
Like Bardot, he crosses gender boundaries; she usually acted like a bad man, he generally acts like a good girl. Like her, he has an unusual name which he has made entirely his own, for better or worse; Brigitte, Marilyn, Winona, Raquel and now Keanu are names it would be very difficult to work with if one was an unattractive teenager. Like Bardot, he rarely speaks in English in his films, and his attempts to do so are charming to behold. And as with her, it is highly unlikely that his beauty will ever allow him to be dispassionately rated as an actor.
Actor, no; star, yes, because with his new film Speed, Reeves's stock has risen clear out of the hipster teenflick playpen and straight into the rarefied air of the big budget mainstream action movie. For Keanu and his accountants, this is wonderful news; for the rest of us, it may seem that his unique talents will in the future be wasted in roles requiring little more than a short haircut, a scowl and a shoulder holster - roles, in fact, which Harrison Ford already does perfectly well.
Reeves's films have nearly always been based on outlandish premises. In Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, we were asked to believe that he could travel back through time to meet Freud, Socrates and Napoleon. In Dracula, we were asked to believe that Winona Ryder would rather sleep with Gary Oldman than with him. In Dangerous Liaisons, we were asked to believe that Uma Thurman would rather sleep with John Malkovich than with him. And in My Own Private Idaho we were asked to believe the most unlikely story of all; that faced with the prospect of a sexually compliant Keanu, someone could fall asleep. You might call it narcolepsy; I call it impossible.
Speed is another unlikely story, about a bomb on a bus; if the bus's speed falls below 50 miles an hour, the bomb will go off and the passengers will be killed. All my friends saw this before me and they really raved about it, even the really, really clever ones. But when I told my eight-year-old (whose ideal film would be a cross between Aladdin and Demolition Man) the plot, he said "What a boring, stupid idea!'' "Oh Jack, you just don't understand,'' I sneered. "Often the simplest ideas are the best! You'll understand when you're older.'' But now having seen Speed, I do indeed feel that Jack was right and that this is a boring, stupid idea. Remember the disaster film? The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Peter's Friends? Well, this is a New Age disaster film in which the dumb chick becomes the hero, the villain is an ex-cop and Keanu Reaves's SWAT policeman shoots only one person, and that's his partner, tactically, in the leg.
But it is being raved over by people who would dismiss 1970s disaster films as a real crock; and I can't see why this is.
For a start, it has no great set pieces, no glass lift plummeting in flames to the ground from 50 floors up. You're in the bus for most of the film and that's it. After two hours, a very authentic travel fatigue sets in. And even more importantly, it has no characters. The Poseidon Adventure had the brilliant pairing of Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens as the pugilistic cop and his ex-hooker wife, it had Martin Sheen's tormented liberation theologist and Pamela Sue Martin's endless legs; The Towering Inferno had Robert Vaughn's disgustingly corrupt politico, Paul Newman's well-meaning architect and Steve McQueen's bitter, fearless fireman.
Speed has Keanu Reeves's Jack Traven, who has a profile instead of a personality, and Sandra Bullock's Annie, the daffy chick who has just lost her driving licence (women, eh?) but is forced to take the wheel when the bus driver gets caught in the crossfire. It has a lot of screaming and yelling and an awful lot of Dennis Hopper as the gasp! psycho doing what he does best; being boring. It strikes me as a real crystallisation of this film's mindless drear that it couldn't come up with a more original villain than Dennis Hopper, the ham from hell.
"There's no there there,'' said Dorothy Parker of some featureless burg; that's what Speed's like. If the fire had gone out in those 1970s films, the victims would still have been recognisable people; if and when this bus stops, everyone on it simply ceases to exist, with or without the benefit of Hopper's bomb. Last week I saw Abraham Valley, three-and-a-half hours of Portuguese art film; this week it was Speed, two hours of American action film. But there really comes a point as with communism and fascism when art and action become as boring as each other. From start to finish, Speed is one slick trick that attempts to mask its banality by rushing along at a breakneck pace. It has, of course, been massively successful across the pond, and you can see why; for once, the massive female audience has been suckered in to the hated action film by the divine presence of Keanu. It's the perfect action film for people who don't like action films; no macho bull or body bags, no high-tech weaponry or damsels in distress. It has the sort of cinematography that buffs can ooh and ahh over, but its freshness is purely superficial. While in the dialogue department, you'll find all the old favourites: "Was it good for you?'', "Having guts is gonna get you killed'' and even "It's nothing personal'' uttered by crazy, evil genius Dennis Hopper between crazy, evil genius laughs. It's a little late in the day to be parodying Arnie, especially after he did it himself in The Last Action Hero.
And the dialogue on the bus is a real feast for the ear; "Aaaaaaagh!'', "Hellllllllllp!'' and "We're gonna diiiiiiiiiiie!''
Speed is a bit like one of those virtual reality rides you find in amusement arcades. But why not go to a funfair if you're looking for that type of thrill? Basically, Speed has to keep moving at such a pace. Because if it slowed down you'd see just how familiar it is.