On Second Watch: Speed Is Still A Cinematic Thrill Ride That Packs a Punch

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I’ve been harboring a deep, dark secret for years: I’ve only seen Speed once. Maybe twice. I know. I’m sorry. I’ve caught snippets on TV here and there, typically coming in during the mid-section when Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are plowing through traffic with a 30-ton bus. Upon re-watching the film recently, I came to the realization that I had very little recollection of it.

When it came out. I was too young to see an R-rated flick in the theater, and I essentially brushed Speed off as a turkey and moved on to other things — The Lion King, Forrest Gump, The Mask, and Maverick. (Again, I was too young for Pulp Fiction, True Lies, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Crow.) Luckily, my buddy’s family wasn’t nearly as strict as mine, allowing for some thrilling R-rated viewing. That’s where I saw Bad Boys, Timecop, Legends of the Fall, The Big Lebowski, Wild Things, Scream, and, of course, Speed.

If memory serves, DirecTV was coming into its own around that time. My buddy’s parents rented Speed for us one late November evening, and I got my first taste of high-octane, foul-mouthed action. At this point in my life, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and RoboCop hadn’t entered my orbit, and so Speed felt like a novel revelation, a thrilling, propulsive action thriller with a kick-ass hero, a cute-as-a-button co-star, and a batshit crazy Dennis Hopper, or, as we called him in those days, that guy from The Super Mario Bros. Movie — don’t judge.

Speed also introduced me to the world of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures via Mark Mancina’s incredible, rhythmic score. I had never heard anything like it and immediately gravitated toward its unique blend of orchestra and electronics.

Basically, Speed was a gateway drug into the action genre. Yet, despite its powerful influence, I never went back to it. Instead, I gravitated toward Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the other films mentioned above. Speed may have served as a cinematic awakening, but it quickly fell behind far superior offerings of the day.

Also, everyone in my family hated it. Jan de Bont ruined Sandra Bullock for my mom, at least until Hope Floats. When The Matrix came out, I recall feeling silly for wanting to see the latest flick starring “that guy from the stupid bus movie.”

I’ve never seen Speed 2: Cruise Control.

Again, Speed popped up here and there on cable. I’ve seen the bit where Keanu’s Jack Traven leaps aboard the bus a half dozen times. Otherwise, Speed was a long-lost relic of the 90s until last weekend when I decided to pop it on for kicks with my daughter.

I won’t label Speed a cinematic masterpiece because it’s too silly, but I had an absolute blast during my latest viewing. So did my kid. For a little over two hours, we laughed and cheered like a couple of over-caffeinated dorks at a midnight screening. Parts of the film floored us, namely the aforementioned bit in which Jack tries to catch the bus before it explodes:

Oh, for those unaware, Speed is about a bus triggered to explode should it fall under 50 miles per hour. As high-concept action pictures go, this one has it all — stakes, derring-do, terrific stunts, a hokey love story, unintentional comedy, intentional comedy, and at least three different endings.

Not all of it works, and the pic loses its momentum in the third act, but for much of its runtime, Speed fires on all cylinders.

I mean, check out some of these beats, and try not to marvel at the incredible filmmaking prowess on display:

You have to admire any film that introduces its hero like this:

Interestingly enough, my dad described Jack as “Gary Stu.” Well, he didn’t use that specific term, but it bugged him that Jack was the only one who seemed to have all the answers while everyone watched him chew gum. I don’t think that’s the case. Jack has the brilliant idea to attach a wayward elevator to a massive cable in the opening scene. Still, he primarily relies on his partner to make smart decisions and makes plenty of mistakes throughout the picture. He punctures the gas tank on the bus at one point, creating more problems to overcome. Like John McClane and other heroes of the day, Jack operates on instinct and survives by the skin of his teeth.

Watching Speed also begs the question: what happened to Jan de Bont? The cinematographer-turned-director exploded out of the gate like a blow torch with Speed and Twister and hasn’t made a good film since. In fact, his last directing vehicle was 2003’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life. Yikes.

Then again, everyone involved with Speed went through a rough patch. Keanu went on to star in turkeys like Johnny Mnemonic, A Walk in the Clouds, and Chain Reaction before rebounding with The Devil’s Advocate in 1997 and The Matrix (the film that cemented his star status) in 1999. Is it wrong that I remember him mostly for John Wick?

Bullock turned her sudden success into While You Were Sleeping, The Net, Two If By Sea, A Time to Kill, In Love and War, and Speed 2. Make of that what you will. Miss Congeniality arrived in 2000, followed by Two Weeks Notice, Crash, and a reunion with Keanu in The Lake House in 2006. For the record, her greatest performance remains Gravity.

Hopper co-starred in Waterworld.

In 1994, the trio were rockstars with a shit ton of potential. Speed instantly shot them to fame or, in Hopper’s case, back into relevance. Somehow, this wickedly entertaining blockbuster never became a franchise. They tried with Speed 2, but that’s not really a true sequel without Keanu. Is there time for a Speed 3? Probably not. Hollywood will likely reboot at some point, but it’s hard to see anyone topping de Bont’s work.

Again, that’s not to say Speed is perfect. The magical leaping bus bit induces laughs, Hopper occasionally veers too far into camp, and for all the snappy pacing and propulsive action, everything outside the main storyline moves at a sluggish pace. Jeff Daniels’ character chills behind his desk and doesn’t appear too vexed that his best pal is stuck on a bus that could explode.

Also, Hopper’s villain wants his moola, so why does he create a scenario that 99% of participants would likely fail? Jack must race through LA traffic during rush hour, leap aboard a speeding bus, and hope to hell the vehicle doesn’t drop below 50 in the process. Then, he must traverse traffic and have the smarts to move the bus to the airport to circle the runway for a few hours. That task seems impossible for anyone, but maybe that’s the point.

At any rate, I’m pleased to say Speed has improved with age. Reeves and Bullock steer the massive production like a couple of pros, resulting in one of the better action films of the 1990s. While I wouldn’t necessarily rank it alongside classics such as T2 or Die Hard with a Vengeance, Speed successfully delivers the thrills in a manner that sets it apart from many other films.

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