by James Ryan
It was the movie all the Hollywood wags were joking about: an unknown director and female lead, and überbimbo Keanu Reeves as an action hero. But Speed's surprise summer triumph has wiped the smiles off their faces
Nothing nurtures the fragile Hollywood ego quite like feasting on someone else's disaster. So when the green light was announced for the action adventure Speed last autumn the jackals pounced, licking their lips at the prospect of a surefire flop. By mid-winter, cocktail party wags had launched a full-fledged assault on what was pejoratively dubbed "Die Hard on a bus".
There was plenty to assail. How about that improbable premise? A mad bomber wires plastic explosives to the Speedometer of a packed commuter bus set to blow if it dips below 50 miles per hour. Then there was the unlikely hero: Keanu Reeves, fresh from his emaciated meditations as Prince Siddhartha in Little Buddha, playing a supercop named Jack Traven. Even with the fetching, short-cropped military do and newly pumped biceps, he seemed outmatched by Dennis Hopper's disgruntled terror-artist Howard Payne. Add to that a first-time director, Dutchman Jan De Bont, a relatively unknown female lead, Sandra Bullock, and troubling reports of co-star Jeff Daniels' fear of heights, and the movie seemed to be a plane crash ready to happen.
By January snide innuendo and false commiseration had grown so thick that party-girl Bullock, who previously had never met a social gathering she didn't like, started tossing out invitations unopened. "I would go to these parties and the inevitable question would arise, 'So are you working on anything? Speed? Really? So, uh, how's it going?'" she recalls. "It made me appreciate Keanu. He was the perfect partner to have around when the whole world's not behind your project. He has a very soothing effect on people."
Then Speed grossed $14 million in its opening weekend, and suddenly it was everyone's favourite movie. Continuing to pick up steam through the summer as word of mouth spread, it topped the magic $100 million mark in its seventh week, a healthy return on its $25 million investment.
Nothing shifts the winds of Hollywood opinion like the ching of a boxoffice cash register. Overnight, De Bout became a certified genius, the best thing to happen to action films since James Cameron. Much-maligned Reeves was transformed from beach bohunk to sensitive superhero. Bullock's asking price quadrupled to $2 million a picture. And screenwriter Graham Yost was buried in phone messages and rewrite offers.
The first indication that Speed might be the summer's sleeper hit came during the spring when word leaked out of extremely positive audience reaction at test screenings. While the rest of Hollywood ignored what they suspected was desperate damage control, jubilant Fox executives began sporting Keanu haircuts and pushed the opening date up from August to early June, enabling them to get a jump on such competition as Arnold Schwarzenegger's True Lies and Jeff Bridges' Blown Away. (The latter, a similarly-premised ticking bomb saga with Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones reprising the Reeves - Hopper dynamic, has been subsequently redubbed "Speed in a jeep".)
What no one had counted on was De Bout's techno-efficiency in the director's chair, nurtured during his early years as cinematographer for fellow Dutchman Paul Verhoeven and later on such big-budget Hollywood thrillers as Die Hard, Basic Instinct and Black Rain. From its opening moments when Hopper choreographs a bungee-cord ballet with a crowded elevator to its final battle sequence aboard a runaway subway train, De Bont delivers a non-stop roller-coaster ride of explosive thrills without ever taking the action too seriously. So fast does the plot careen forward that he never gives us a chance to second-guess its improbable twists.
Originally purchased by Paramount in autumn 1991, the script for Speed was put into "turnaround" - the word Hollywood uses when a studio decides not to proceed with a project, but allows a competitor to pick it up if they can reimburse for costs so far incurred - a year later after several rewrites. "Everyone envisioned it as a low-budget action movie," recalls Yost. "Then they had me add the subway sequence at the end and decided it would be too expensive."
Fox picked up the rights for a song and went shopping for a director. Among those on the A-list who passed were John Badham, Ridley Scott and Renny Harlin. Eventually it extended an offer to the untested De Bont. "I called several directors I had worked with and they all advised me against making the movie," recalls De Bont. "They said it was impossible. Of course, that only made me want to do it more." "People just didn't get why it would be exciting," adds Yost. "Now, of course, everyone is trying to claim as much credit as they can."
A struggling writer who had written ten unsold screenplays and was paid in the "very low six figures" for Speed, Yost has been swept on to the A-list himself with the movie's success. Disney hired him to do a rewrite, Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment bought an animated feature, and he has a third project with Speed's producer Mark Gordon set up at Paramount, that studio executives are apparently hoping will wipe some of the egg off their faces.
While De Bont and Yost deserve the lion's share of the credit, Speed owes its enormous popularity in no small part to Bullock's tough-as-nails, wise-cracking, auto-deprived heroine Annie. Bullock, who had already shown the right stuff as Sylvester Stallone's stretchpants-clad sidekick Lenina Huxley in the futuristic cop drama Demolition Man, says the Annie role was tailor-made. "I took one look at the script and said, 'This is the kind of girl I'd hang out with and have a beer.'"
As if it's not challenge enough to navigate a wheeled leviathan in and around rush-hour traffic, Annie manages to calm her multicultural passenger load and sustain a lightening-quick repartee with supercop Reeves. Not since Karen Black took the controls of a 747 in Airport 75 has there been such a display of feminine bravado. "I never liked that maiden in distress stuff in traditional action movies, where the character is always kicking and screaming," explains Yost.
Female moviegoers apparently agree. Exit polls indicated that women enjoyed Speed as much as men, qualifying it, perhaps, as the first bona fide action adventure date movie. To capitalise on its cross-over appeal, Fox proceeded to alter the movie's ad campaign. Posters featuring Reeves superimposed over an exploding bus were replaced with ones including Reeves and Bullock in a foreground clinch.
Has the lesson been lost on Hollywood? Not on your cellular phone-dependent life! Speed presages a cinematic wave giving women equal buttkicking rights, a door first opened by the commercial success of such movies as Thelma And Louise and Nikita. Soon to arrive are Sharon Stone playing a hired killer in Quick And The Dead, Demi Moore as a forest ranger battling poachers in Trapped, Meryl Streep as a river rafter protecting her family from bandits in The River Wild, Juliette Lewis as a serial murderess in Natural Born Killers, and the two Geena Davis-Renny Harlin collaborations, Mistress Of The Sea, about eighteenth-century pirate Anne Bonney, and A Long Kiss Goodnight, about a female hired assassin.
Also contributing to Speed's appeal to the fairer sex is its low body count. Although the movie keeps the testosterone pumping with a multitude of car crashes and fiery explosions, and features Hopper plunging a screwdriver into the ear of an unfortunate security guard within the first few minutes, the audience is largely spared the gaping wounds and free-flowing bodily fluids that drench most action fare. Reeves only manages to fire his gun once - into his partner's leg. De Bont actually added the screwdriver scene himself as an afterthought because he "didn't think audiences would buy Hopper as the villain if he didn't kill at least one person". Hopper is at his menacing Blue Velvet best, however, playing interactive terrorist riffs from his lair via remote control and hidden video cameras.
Gushing that he wanted to create a kinder, gentler "action hero for the Nineties", De Bout says he hired Reeves to bring "an innocence, sweetness and romantic quality" to the role opposite Hopper's. "You see that very rarely in an action movie. The first thing I did was have him cut his hair off. I didn't want people to think of Bill and Ted any more. I want them to think of Keanu as an adult actor now. "
Indeed, a good case can be made that officer Jack Traven is Reeves' first fully adult character. Initially reluctant to portray an action hero - though it will likely be looked upon as a milestone in his career - Reeves gradually warmed to the role's unfamiliar physical challenges. De Bout eased him into the stunt work with simple manoeuvres early on "to make him more comfortable" and eventually had him stepping from the bus to another vehicle while travelling at 50mph. "It was more fun than I thought it was going to be," admits the actor.
Reeves made use of the eight months between Little Buddha and Speed to regain the weight he had lost to portray Prince Siddhartha and attend Los Angeles police SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team training exercises. He found his subjects "altruistic, imaginative and humble". "Wit and humour are very important and they have a genuine concern for people," he adds, "and that was something I was interested in communicating." Particularly influential on his character, he says, was a gun nut he befriended who is revered in SWAT circles as The Ice Man. "I really felt like I had met a warrior," says Reeves. "When they're doing their jobs, they really enjoy the weapons and tactics. I wanted to bring that warrior side to it, the part that enjoys the weapons and enjoys the pressure and the stakes."
On set, says De Bont, the actor attempted to bring a similar sense of reflective focus to his own performance. "He used Shakespeare to calm himself. It's kind of weird having an actor sit on a bus reciting Shakespeare in the middle of the freeway. It's a way of practising every day. He really wants to be a good actor. He's absolutely determined to become a good actor." His co-star meanwhile found his on-set behaviour both endearing and exasperating. "One minute you wanted to punch him because he was so blatantly honest," says Sandra, "the next you wanted to throw your arms around him."
In addition to its unconventional hero and heroine, Speed also offers audiences a glimpse of the latest in groundbreaking digital technology. Many of the mind-boggling effects in Speed were accomplished with the aid of computer graphics wizards at the state-of-the-art effects house Video Image, which earlier had generated imagery for Batman Returns and Cliffhanger. When De Bont, for example, wanted to shoot a bus leaping across a chasm in an uncompleted freeway flyover, Video Image first shot an existing intact road on film and then "painted in" the gap digitally. They also added computer-generated construction scaffolding and a flock of birds flying through the "gap" to enhance the realism. One effect that wasn't faked, though, was the blowing up of a real 747 cargo plane. The jet, with its innards gutted, was purchased from a used aeroplane scrapyard and exploded in the Mojave Desert.
Technical wizardry was also of little use in surmounting perhaps the greatest barrier De Bont faced apart from Reeves' monotone delivery: convincing Los Angeles city officials to allow Hollywood to cast further shadows across their already much-maligned public transit system. That obstacle was eventually overcome with a more traditional Hollywood ploy: Fox threatened to move the entire production to San Francisco. Faced with losing millions in revenues to their Northern California rival, the city fathers acquiesced, allowing De Bont to disrupt commuter traffic on major freeway arteries as well as shoot in the city's four newly completed Metrorail stations.
San Franciscans need not plunge into despair. There's always the chance they could land the sequel. As expected, Fox and De Bont are already discussing plans to turn the movie into a cash-generating franchise in the vein of Lethal Weapon or Die Hard. They'll no doubt have to settle for a slimmer profit margin, however, as production costs are bound to escalate. With characteristic lack of foresight, studio executives failed to lock in Reeves for Speed II. The actor, who was paid a flat fee of $1.2 million for Speed, is reportedly contemplating the sum of $7 million to reprise his role. How's that for true enlightenment?