Actually, 'Speed' Isn't as Good as You Remember
A groundbreaking musical score, an ever-twisting plot, and all the tropes of a classic 1990s action flick isn't enough to save it.
20th Century Fox
Hollywood action films in the mid 1990s were about megastars, B-story romances, and gratuitous explosions. A surprise success, Speed (1994) was part typical Hollywood action flick and part arthouse film, taking cues from Akira Kurosawa and employing Joss Whedon to write dialogue (but you won't see his name on iMDB). With a budget of only $30 million, the film went on to gross $300 million, securing the lead actors a permanent place on the A-list and spurring a sequel with hefty funding—five times the budget for the original. Critically, the film was viewed favorably by critics at the New Yorker and TIME. Even Roger Ebert, at his prime in the mid 90s, rated it 4 out of 4 stars. Currently, it has a "fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
Speed was released in June 1994. We were all watching Tonya Harding's husband pleading guilty to clubbing Harding's rival in the leg. Bill Clinton was our newly elected president, NAFTA was established, and it seemed like the world was getting smaller and a bit more dangerous. Long before "Peak TV," we were all watching the same television shows, which were gaining insurmountable ratings. The world was on the cusp of a new technological age, and no one could predict how the internet would change people's day-to-day lives. All of these reasons—the internet in people's homes, populist television, globalism—are why Speed came and went.
Part of the reason for Speed's success is the film's unusual and sadistic plot device: using a public bus as a weapon. But the bus is just one aspect of the action. In almost every scene, the film uses a series of ticking time bomb situations with riddles to up the ante. Keanu Reeves plays Jack, a gum-chewing Los Angeles detective who foils an attempted domestic terror attack by jaded ex-bomb squad member Howard (Dennis Hopper) and ignites a rivalry of wits, with the citizens of LA as pawns in Howard's games. In 1994, the plot seemed far-reaching, and although it still seems a bit unbelievable today, news of terrorist attacks on public transportation are a part of our day-to-day social media scrolling. Unfortunately, the plot feels more like something you might read about on CNN.com or see unfolding on Facebook Live.
Arguably, the best material in Speed comes from Dennis Hopper's character who is delightfully Hopperesque throughout the film with phrases like "Don't fuck with daddy" and "pop quiz hotshot." Hopper gives a lot to this performance, and it is electric every time he's on-screen. His performance is reminiscent of his depiction of Frank in Blue Velvet. In a film where everything is to-the-point and obvious, Speed could've used more of those Lynchian vibes.
In regards to its portrayal of women, Speed passes the Bechdel test. But although Sandra Bullock is the co-star, not much can be said for her character, Annie. It seems Annie has two roles in the film. When she's not being the funny one, she's the damsel in distress, which even more than two decades ago, was a tired cliché. Despite the cliché dialogue, Bullock's performance is stellar. Annie seems to be the only one in the film that realizes the ridiculousness of it all. Just when you think the earnestness in Speed is overkill, Annie steps in to give the film a once-over of realness. You can't believe this ridiculous thing is happening? Yeah, well, neither can she.
At the time of Speed's release, lead actor Keanu Reeves was distancing himself from the teenaged airhead roles and making an effort to establish a career as a high-art actor, appearing in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho just a few years before and fresh from the film Little Buddha. It's rumored that when director Jan de Bont reached out to Reeves to play Jack, Reeve's initial response was to change Jack's dialogue in order to give him a good-guy attitude. In comes fresh writer Joss Whedon who, at the time, was essentially working as a professionally uncredited film writer. This adjustment, to take Jack's character from bad boy to a man with a strict moral code, may have saved the film. While there are quality actors in the film, Reeves is on-camera throughout the film, in almost every scene. His character is reckless, brave, a do-gooder. If he was unlikable, the movie would be unwatchable.
Los Angeles has a central role in the film. There are shots in Venice Beach, Pershing Square, and Hollywood Boulevard. Two of the locations, the Hollywood/Highland Metro Station and the 105 freeway, were under construction during filming and yet to be open to the public. The film showcases Los Angeles as a community where citizens have on another's backs, the infrastructure is clean and new, and cops are working hard to keep the city safe. In truth, when Speed was filming, the city was in a very different place than the film advertises. California was in the midst of an economic recession and many neighborhoods were still in disarray from the 1992 riots.
Speed won two Academy Awards for its unique background score, grossed approximately ten times its budget, and gained enough critical praise to spar a sequel. But there's a reason Keanu Reeves refused to star in the sequel (which featured a cruise ship in place of the bus). Although Speed's plot devices function well by upping the ante, there's not much substance beyond said devices. It's easy to forget the characters and their motives—and, in turn, the film altogether.