Top Ten Reasons We Can't Get Enough of Speed
by Maitland McDonagh
Action movies took a quantum leap forward in the nineties, using fledgling CGI to seamlessly blend real and man-made images. The result was sleek spectacles that were bigger, faster, and more mind-blowing than ever before. Speed might just be the best of the bunch, a piece of pure pedal-to-the-metal poetry in which practical stunts meld with Dennis Hopper's pitch-perfect psycho and Keanu Reeves's off-kilter performance as a hard-ass cop. So we love Speed, and here are ten reasons why.
10. Real Stunts
Speed is one slick demolition derby, and, while the movie utilizes the latest technology, most of what you see is practical stunts: real cars and real drivers doing really dangerous things. Not CGI. The bus itself smashes more cars than you can count -- a cop cruiser that gets walloped during a high-speed turn, plus a parking lot's worth of standing vehicles. Did we mention the runaway train? How about the plane that gets broadsided while sitting innocently on a runway? Kids, don't try this at home.
9. The Elevator Scene
Nobody likes elevators, and the movie's opening scene -- thirteen passengers (a mix of stink eyes, nervous coughers, and incipient hysterics) trapped in a malfunctioning elevator -- will work your last nerve. The highlight: Miss "It's All About Me," who progresses inexorably from self-indulgent complaining to contagious "I don't want to die" panic.
8. The Pay Phone
There's something endearing about the fact that the fiendish plan of Speed's villain depends on a pay phone. Yes, a pay phone! Fixating on a movie's old-fashioned clothes, slang, and tech is juvenile (in 2030, our fancy iPads will look ridiculous), but in an action-movie world with ever-more-high-tech plots involving satellites and whatnot, Speed's so-near-yet-so-far-away technological plot -- a pay phone and a regular old bomb -- is kind of retro cool.
7. The Bus Passengers
At first they look like a standard-issue Hollywood cross section of humanity: an elderly African-American couple, a volatile young tough, a frightened Latina who doesn't speak English. But as the volatile situation evolves, they realign, bicker, pull together, freak out under pressure, and tap into unexpected reserves of courage and selflessness. The small human dramas inside the bus are as interesting as the demolition derby outside.
6. The Jackass Tourist
Speed's breakout hostage is Stephens (whose name you'd know only if you recognize prolific character actor Alan Ruck), the unrepentant out-of-towner with a fistful of guidebooks and an endless supply of irritating golly-gee patter. But when LAPD bomb jock Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) needs to relay information to his partner via cell phone while he checks out the bomb onboard, he picks Stephens. The tense scene culminates in a laugh as the self-proclaimed yokel bowdlerizes Traven's frustrated "Fuck me!" into "Oh, darn."
5. The New and Improved Keanu Reeves
Reeves's attempt to reinvent himself before being permanently typecast as the good-natured airhead of Bill & Ted couldn't have gone better. He muscled up, stripped his pretty locks down, and did many of his own stunts, including the high-speed leap from a car onto the bus. Which makes a fun moment all the sweeter when his inner Ted comes out while comforting a passenger: "Whatever you did, I'm sure that you're sorry. So it's cool now. It's over, and I'm not a cop right now. We're just two cool dudes just hanging out." Aw.
4. The Endlessly Inventive Action Sequences
The bus jump across a 50-foot gap on the unfinished 101 freeway is like an elephant doing a triple axel. Or Traven trying to disarm a bomb while lying on a wheeled sled being pulled at 50 miles per hour, or the booby-trapped house, the train jacking, or even the throwaway shot of a cargo plane lifting off moments before the bus shoots across its runway. There are more but not enough space to name them.
3. The Emergence of Sandra Bullock
She's so adorable. The fact she spent seven years slogging through forgettable flicks before becoming America's sweetheart is shocking. Bullock's Annie is nice but not insipid, fundamentally kind and generous even when she's stressed and snippy. She never stops being terrified, but from the moment she takes the wheel from the injured bus driver she just keeps on stepping up and doing what has to be done to keep her fellow passengers alive. What a gal!
2. The Reliable Dennis Hopper
Few can pull off maniacal malevolence like Hopper, who pulls out all the stops as Howard Payne, the cop turned mad bomber who keeps his old uniform neatly hung on a department-store mannequin. Hopper slaughters innocent bystanders with a cool "Nothing personal," baits and mocks Traven with demeaning warnings like "Do not attempt to grow a brain," and cackles gleefully as he detonates a bomb. He's one of the truly memorable villains in action-movie history.
1. The Concept
Speed moves even faster than the 50 miles per hour the bus is restricted to. In fact, buses physically can't move as fast as the movie's pace. First-time screenwriter Graham Yost came up with the best action-movie premise ever: there's a bomb on a city bus that activates when the speedometer hits 50 and detonates as soon as it slows down, allowing for high-speed lane weaving, explosions, and a heroic attempt to thwart the crazed villain. Never once does Speed slow down -- and therein lies the movie's greatness.