(SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.
Hopper was experiencing something of a minor renaissance around this point, even if some of his more villainous turns (Super Mario Bros (1993), Waterworld (1995)) weren’t exactly keepers. But he carried the best scene in Tarantino’s True Romance the year before, and here he was been given a series of choice Joss Whedon lines (Whedon rewrote about 98.9% of the dialogue, according to a very ungrudging Graham Yost). Lines like “No, no. Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric”, “Don’t fuck with daddy” and “Oh! In two-hundred years we’ve gone from ‘I regret but I have one life to give my country’ to ‘Fuck you!’?” And exiting the toilet, audibly flushing.
De Bont had a big part in developing the screenplay too, suggesting the opening lift sequence as Fox felt setting the entire movie on a bus wasn’t sustainable. Yost then added the subway train sequence at the end, which is the only slightly disappointingly by-numbers part of the picture. But it was Whedon who came up with the “Pop quiz, hotshot”, made Keanu’s Jack Traven polite rather than young dumb and full of cum (“Sir, I need to take your phone”), killed off Jeff Daniels’ Harry (whom Yost had initially envisaged as the main villain), and made Doug (Alan Ruck) a nice guy. Perhaps surprisingly, Whedon’s dialogue is funny, but not sunk beneath pop culture quips – calling Carlos Carrasco “Gigantor” is about as far as it goes. That may be because he was a writer for hire, and couldn’t yet just do whatever he liked. It also, conversely, suggests he might have been better not to box himself in so much, genre-wise, subsequently, even if in all cases his approach to resonance is of the fast-food variety (an instant hit, but the lustre soon wears off). And now, who wants to work with the guy who reshot Justice League?
Yost would go on to acclaim for the Justified TV show, one of the few Elmore Leonard translations to land perfectly. Like Keanu, he wisely avoided Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997). Mark Mancina also deserves a mention, since Speed’s score sounds for all the world like the generic 90s action score (which isn’t a bad thing per se; he has collaborated with Hans Zimmer several times, who makes the most made-to-order music there is when it isn’t for Christopher Nolan).
The action in Speed is still perfectly executed. At least, in the first two sequences. The lift threat and rescue – everyone gets out just in the nick of time – is followed by the main attraction that is the bus gambit. Keeping it above fifty is an irresistible idea, and then throwing various obstacles in its path to prevent it from maintaining that speed (although the freeway leap is never less than the utmost silliness). If de Bont lacks the precision and finesse of McTiernan, Speed shares an emotional centre with Die Hard (1988), his former collaborator’s greatest movie. It’s far too commonly absent from the action flick: not only reaching an objective but also caring about the protagonists getting there. And here you care about both Jack and Annie (Bullock). Placed in the seat of the reluctant driver, she’s a fine foil for Jack, and Bullock is pitch perfect, possessed of that rare gift of improving her fellow performers just by dint of interacting with them.
Of course, Die Hard could boast thematic content, something Speed, with its various reworkings and juggling just to get those action beats and quips to click, doesn’t have much time for. Hopper’s Howard Payne is a homegrown terrorist. The same year’s Blown Away offered some faux-IRA blarney, while True Lies gave us no messing around from Jimbo with some straight-up Middle Eastern varmints (Crimson Jihad no less – Cameron set the scene for the US’s war on larger-than-life Muslim boogeymen). Speed ditches the personal betrayal element by passing over “Harry as bad guy” but retains a hint of an inside job/reflection of the corruption inherent in the system riff by making Payne a former bomb squad officer.
Payne’s motivation, one might suggest, is rather prosaic, though, since his American dream has failed to pay up (“This is about my money, this is about money due to me! Which I will collect! 3.7 million dollars! It’s my nest egg, Jack. At my age, you have to think ahead…”) Like Michael Douglas in the previous year’s Falling Down, Payne bought into a fantasy that failed to deliver. D-Fens didn’t get the ever-devoted wife and family and secure job for life, while Payne finished up maimed and pensioned off. Of course, in both cases any underlying legitimacy to these out-of-control crazies’ gripes is undermined by the protagonist, positioned as either simply a better person in every way (Jack) or the one who perseveres and comes out the better man (Robert Duvall’s Prendergast). And there’s also that the last thing on Hopper’s mind is giving Payne anything less than a cartoon sensibility.
So Keanu is at his most likeable, while also looking a bit more rugged than usual with that buzz cut (it doesseem to have an effect on his performance, making him more no-nonsense while avoiding the impersonal). Bullock had made an impression in the previous year’s Demolition Man (again, making Sly look good and even funny in their scenes together). So it’s just a shame she’d so rarely find roles worthy of her talents. This was Keanu’s second pairing with Hopper – they were previously together in the memorably twisted River’s Edge (1986) – and Speed represents a kind of second go-round at star status, in a way, even though it was only three years since Point Break (he’d be doing it again five years later with The Matrix). He was right to avoid the sequel, which goes without saying, although he still managed to make Chain Reaction (1996) – during his very brief “fat” phase – so no one is perfect.
That he didn’t return for Speed 2 ensures there’s little lasting backwash polluting this one. Which means Speed also serves as a reminder why most of the Die Hard sequels didn’t work as well either; first you need the relationships in place, from partner, to love interest, to antagonist. And then, you need someone who can make the action work.