The Quarantine Stream: 'Speed' is a Perfect Action Movie
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Speed
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: There’s a bomb on a bus and if the bus slows down it’ll explode!
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Is Speed a perfect movie? That’s probably a loaded question, but I’m just going to go ahead and say “Yes, yes it is.” It’s certainly a perfect action movie. And it’s the perfect combination of factors that create a funny, exciting, sexy, explosion-filled action pic that really will have you on the edge of your seat, as cliched as that statement might sound.
Keanu Reeves wasn’t an unknown actor when he filmed Speed in 1993, but Speed is the film that really turned him into a movie star. Sporting a short-cut haircut that instantly set him apart from the uber-dudes he had been previously playing, Reeves is ultra-cool LAPD SWAT bomb disposal cop Jack Traven. After a thrilling opening in which Jack and his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) save a bunch of people trapped in an elevator by a mad bomber, Jack is riding high – he even gets a medal for his bravery.
But Jack’s glory is short-lived because it turns out the elevator bomber everyone thought was dead (played by a wonderfully unhinged Dennis Hopper) is still very much alive. And worse than that, he’s put a bomb on a bus – if the bus goes above 50 MPH, it’s armed. If the bus drops below 50 MPH, it explodes. Jack races to the bus and gets on board, but not before the bomb is armed. Now he has to figure out a way to disarm it and save everyone on board. Helping him out is Annie (Sandra Bullock), a bus passenger who ends up as the bus driver after the regular driver is accidentally shot.
This scenario allows director Jan de Bont to stage a series of increasingly thrilling action set-pieces, and almost all of them are realized practically. This was before the age of digital everything, which means that de Bont had to rely on a real bus whenever he could. Sometimes he uses miniature work, but the bottom line is that there’s never a moment where we don’t buy what’s happening. The bus that keeps speeding around, crashing into things, and leaping over gaps in the freeway always looks physically real, which makes everything extra exciting.
All of this excitement would only go so far if the rest of the film was a bust, but it’s not. The script, which is credited to Graham Yost but had some script doctor work by Joss Whedon, is sharp and funny. And the cast is dynamite across the board. Hopper is great as the over-the-top bad guy and Daniels is a sturdy presence as Jack’s partner. But it’s Reeves and Bullock who anchor this entire thing, and the two are just great together. We buy into their growing relationship, and when Jack and Annie finally get to smooch for the first time (after a big explosion, of course), it’s sexy stuff. Bullock and de Bont would go on to make a Speed sequel, but it’s a pale imitation. Reeves didn’t return, and the magic that was bottled up in the first film was gone. But we can ignore Speed 2: Cruise Control, because we’ll always have Speed, in all its perfect action movie glory.
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