If “Die Hard” became a mould for a whole generation of the action film genre, then “Speed” was the one which taught filmmakers a whole new lesson. By early 1994, action films kept getting more elaborate and more expensive with their general nature becoming too big or fantastical to really keep us grounded or enraptured anymore.
That’s when Jan DeBont came along with a film that utilised a very simple concept – place a group of people in a bus that cannot drop below 50MPH or offload any of its passengers otherwise it’ll explode, and then stick it in the middle of LA rush hour traffic. Sounds formulaic but it works ever so well – DeBont never allows the pace to slow down for one minute and keeps throwing surprise curveballs at every corner, some of which defy natural laws of gravity or sense but the sheer energy of the picture makes it easy to suspend disbelief.
The characters are pretty stock elements too – the roguishly handsome cop, his wisecracking sidekick, the one-dimensional bad guy with knowledge of explosives, the feisty but cool under pressure female love interest, etc. Yet each one is perfectly cast – the buffed up short haircut Keanu Reeves never looked so good or comfortable in a role outside of certain Bill & Ted/Matrix franchises.
He has the right appeal, demeanour, gusto and attitude which worked ever so well for the material, and is equally matched by the then little known Bullock who poses a natural charisma and humour which has since departed in her latter films – not to mention she and Reeves share excellent on screen chemistry. Hopper is enjoyable but indistinct playing a psycho, whilst the likes of Jeff Daniels & Joe Morton lend support as the cops. Even the various bus passengers establish distinct individual identities and traits which makes them easy to root for.
The humour is consistent and chuckle inducing throughout with lots of forgettable but likeable one-liners. By adding two action sequences (an elevator bit and a subway fight) at the beginning and end of the story, we’re able to get all we need to know in the early excitement and see the plot come to a climax without things ever slowing down and allowing the bus sequence to be pure non-stop fun.
The action keeps coming in unusual ways – a simple hard turn on a road becomes a source of high tension, a bit where it appears they’ve hit a baby proves shocking and then a split second later laughable when the truth is revealed, even the unbelievable freeway gap jump which defies belief is still an awesome sight to see and Mark Mancina’s adrenalin charged score keeps things moving throughout. Sure its contrived and simply a ‘dumb action’ movie in some respects but there’s no mistaking its one of the absolute best of the genre.