28 years later and this is still a fantastic action film
Speed’s premise is ingenuously simple – a bomb is on a bus and it can’t go under 50 mph. If it does, it’ll detonate and kill everyone on board. As our protagonist Jack Traven (played by Keanu Reeves) would say, “What do you do?” If the answer is: create a film that still holds up as one of the best action movies ever 28 years later, then you’d be correct.
Now, Speed isn’t a perfect film before I get all hyperbolic here! There are some clear logical flaws, namely with a specific stunt jump our bus pulls midway through, and there’s an annoying abrupt ending too. But these flaws are so easy to overlook when the ride to get there is so darn enjoyable.
The story itself doesn’t actually begin with the bus but it does begin with a bomb. We pick up in the middle of a tense hostage situation, with LAPD SWAT officers Jack Traven and Harry Temple (played by Jeff Daniels) called to an office where a terrorist is holding an elevator filled with passengers up to ransom. Unfortunately, the lift is also rigged with explosives. The bomber wants $3 million or he’ll detonate the explosives and kill everyone onboard.
When the bomber is declared dead off the back of a massive explosive, Jack moves on with his life…until he’s thrust back into the thick of the action. After getting his morning coffee, he witnesses a mass transit bus explode, killing the driver. Receiving a call from the bomber, Jack is given the location and bus number, promising fireworks if he doesn’t hurry up and stop those onboard from blowing to pieces.
What ensues from here is a nail-biting thriller, one that sees Jack work on the bus to try and stop the bomber while Harry works tirelessly in the office, poring through the archives to find out exactly who this guy is. This duality of pace works really well to break up the action, with little moments of respite allowing you to catch your breath before plunging back into the action again. And boy is there a lot of action.
There’s also a surprising amount of humour too, well-placed across the 1 hour 50 run-time to keep the tone dark but also with the perfect moments of levity. One of the more iconic comes from a passenger heading across the road pushing a pram… full of cans. Why? Why is she out with tin cans? It’s never explained, but when the bus inevitably ploughs into it, sending the pram sky high and the woman livid at her tins rolling across the road, it’s one of those surreal bouts of humour that works perfectly in the context of the story.
Essentially the film splits its three acts into three distinct modes of transport, all of which nodding back to that motif of speed. The first, revolves around the elevator. The second (and longest) sticks with the bus and the third mixes things up and introduces a subway train. Whether intentional or not, the fact that all three acts switch up the setting and increase the speed of every mode of transport in the process, is actually pretty ingenuous.
With these old 90’s action movies, a lot of the clichés stem from the “good guy gets the girl” trope, and in this instance, that girl happens to be an inspired Sandra Bullock. She’s certainly no damsel in distress and more than holds her own as the defacto bus driver.
Her chemistry with Keanu Reeves is fantastic and the pair put on a great performance together. Of course, some of the dialogue is a little cheesy and corny – but hey, that’s part of the charm with these older movies. And it’s also a great testament to why practical effects will always trump CGI.
On the subject of the cast though, a lot of credit needs to be given to Dennis Hopper’s performance. His antagonistic role feels like the archetype for Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. There’s an element of unpredictability and a desire to cause absolute chaos, whilst simultaneously not caring about who he hurts along the way.
Sometimes the best laid plans suck. But sometimes, simplicity is key to making something brilliant. When it comes to Speed, this is quite simply, brilliant. It’s a great way to kill a few hours and has all the elements needed to tell a great story. Cheesy dialogue and rushed ending aside, Speed is a glistening example of how to create a timeless action movie.
Read More: Speed Ending Explained
Verdict - 8.5/10