If you’re looking for action movie heaven, try Speed, a crackling blend of suspense and fun that gives you the rush of a runaway roller coaster. It’s morning-drive time in Los Angeles as a bus packed with passengers heads for the freeway. In a hide-out filled with surveillance gadgetry, mad bomber Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper going full-tilt bug fuck as only he can) phones SWAT cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) with a perverse pop quiz: “There’s a bomb on the bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles per hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, the bus blows up. Whaddya do, Jack?”
What the bomber wants to do is get Jack to fork over $3.7 million. But Jack is a bit of a loose cannon himself — his partner, Harry (Jeff Daniels), describes him as “deeply nuts.” What Jack wants to do is hop on the bus, disarm the bomb, then find this psycho and whup his extortionist ass. Guess who gets his wish? Hollywood cynics have tagged Speed as Die Hard on a bus. Fair enough. Originality isn’t the film’s strong suit; execution is. Under Siege was prematurely dissed as Die Hard on a submarine until Andrew Davis showed what a gifted director could do with a formula plot.
First-time director Jan De Bont performs similar marvels with Speed. De Bont, the acclaimed cinematographer who took his camera under the ocean in The Hunt for Red October and up Sharon Stone’s skirt in Basic Instinct, also shot the original Die Hard. He’s learned firsthand how to grab an audience. And though the script by newcomer Graham Yost lacks the solid character base of last summer’s Fugitive and In the Line of Fire, the acting is as kinetic as the action.
Reeves is a major surprise; he cuts a sturdy figure far removed from the malebimbo act that made him a star in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and proved ruinous to his so-called serious performances in Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing. Reeves’ hard of body/soft of head image gets tweaked in Speed when the bomber tells Jack: “Don’t attempt to grow a brain.” But Reeves has the last laugh by delivering a vigorous, no-bull performance that suggests we’ll be able to hear his name in the future without silently mouthing the word dude.
While Reeves and Hopper play a battle of wits, Sandra Bullock nearly drives off with the picture. As Annie, a passenger whom Jack puts behind the wheel when the bus driver is shot, the smart and sassy Bullock is a knockout. She makes us believe the impossible things Annie is doing and, better, makes us care. Bullock’s roles in Demolition Man, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway and The Thing Called Love would have made her a star already if the films were less dreary. Speed is a spiffier vehicle, and it’s a pleasure to watch her ride this baby home. Jack picks Annie to drive because she’s had her license revoked for speeding. She’s more exhilarated than scared keeping the bus hurtling along even when it means flooring the gas pedal to clear a 50-foot gap in the freeway or taking a detour into city traffic that becomes a nerve-rattling demolition derby.
The stunts, including Jack’s leaping onto the bus from a moving car and his trying to dismantle the bomb while dangling near wheels that could squish him into road kill, will have you ducking in your seat. If the bus doesn’t get you, there’s the elevator crash that opens the film and the subway chase that closes it.
Still, the fireworks wouldn’t count for much if the hardware overwhelmed the humanity. Speed cinches its spot as the thrill ride of summer by providing characters to hiss at and root for. Jack and Annie actually manage to strike up a convincing romance even at hyperspeed and without taking their eyes off the road. It’s an impressive feat enhanced by the film’s knack — shared with The Fugitive — for serving up two hours of pure pow without gratuitous gore. Action flicks are usually written off as a debased genre, unless, of course, they work. And Speed works like a charm. It’s a reminder of how much movie escapism can still stir us when it’s dished out with this kind of dazzle. Pass the popcorn.