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Action Alphabet: 'Speed'

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Pop quiz, hotshot: How do you make a movie about a bunch of hostages and a ballsy LAPD cop trapped on a bus with a bomb interesting? I admit that if I had no knowledge of the 1994 film Speed or rather if it had never existed, I would say that it sounds like mediocre-to-bad idea for an action movie. But when the first-time feature screenwriter Graham Yost’s script and the first-time direction of Dutch cinematographer Jan de Bont was combined with an unusual collection of actors like the docile Keanu Reeves and the adorable Sandra Bullock, an extraordinary thing happened: the happily stupid, completely farfetched, simply genius action spectacular called Speed comes out the other end. It’s fast and unrelenting and makes good use of both its good and bad fortune…that, and Dennis Hopper is amazingly creepy as the evil bomber.

Reeves play Officer Jack Traven of the Los Angeles Bomb Squad who, as the story opens, is attempting to save a group of people unknowingly held hostage by a nameless bomber (Hopper) on an elevator with the help of his partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels). They foil the plan and save the hostages, but one of the bomber’s other devices explodes, leaving Jack and Harry thinking that he is dead. But one morning, Jack is out buying some coffee when a city bus explodes – the bomber is back with a vengeance, having placed another bomb on a different bus filled with passengers; if the bus drives above 50 mph the bomb is armed and then if it drops below 50 mph the bomb goes off. So Jack gets on the bus and spends most of the rest of the movie trying to keep the moving bus from exploding. It’s such a strange thing to write the plot of this movie out – it feels so odd and more and more unintelligent as I do – and an even stranger thing to read it back. I can’t think of a movie where there’s a bigger rift between its paper explanation and the actual product, between the utterly dense and idiotic and the engaging and breathtaking – cinematic proof the two wrongs (or in this case a whole slew of wrongs) do make a right.

Despite how well-suited his mild talent was to the monochromatic steeliness of the Matrix movies, I would say that the real wings of this movie is Reeves and his one-note, brash, all-business officer of the law. Speed, as one would guess by its title, is the celluloid personification of adrenaline, which leaves little to no room for moments of raw emotion other than wild rage and as such makes handsome Keanu the perfect man for the job. And everywhere he’s lacking, the other cast members pick up the slack. Daniels brings levity and humor as the other half of the buddy cop pair, Bullock brings a welcome dose of feminine energy to balance out the gads of testosterone, and then of course there’s Hopper. Functionally, other than forwarding the plot, Dennis Hopper’s scenes in his little terrorist lair surrounded by TVs are meant to serve as relief from watching a bunch of people of an a bus hurtling down a California highway doing sixty or more – but he fills the screen up with his ghoulish presence and keeps the energy going at a full rolling boil. I would try to include more on the action-packed moments of this movie except for two things – one, the whole thing is action packed; and two, it again just wouldn’t translate. A bus jumping over a forty-foot gap on the freeway; Reeves’s Traven stuck on the undercarriage of the bus trying to disarm the bomb; mano-e-mano on top of a speeding subway train – yeah, it all sounds dumb and yet its still so awesome and watchable, with a staying power that’s out of reach of the majority of nineties action movies. As the saying goes, seeing is believing.

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