Speed (1994) by Jan de Bont
Retro Review by Reid Ramsey
On our weekly family trip to Blockbuster one time, my dad walked up and handed me a DVD he thought I should rent. My dad’s habit was to recommend me R-rated in the vein of Gladiator or 300 that I would then, as the self-censoring kid that I was, politely re-shelve and grab Like Mike (good movie) or S.W.A.T. (bad movie) instead. On this particular trip, though, my dad handed me Speed; and, for whatever reason, I went along with it that night.
As I would soon discover, the most essential attribute of Speed is its simplicity. The plot follows Officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) who, after successfully stopping Howard Payne’s (Dennis Hopper) plan to blow up a crowded elevator, is immediately called-to-action again as Payne rigs a public bus to explode if its speed drops below 50 mph. From there Traven and Annie (Sandra Bullock), who ends up driving the bus, and the ragtag crew of commuters have plenty of obstacles to overcome, but those are the basics of the plot.
25 years following the release of Speed, the film remains one of the quintessential action movies of the 1990s.
Speed premiered at a crossroads of action film history. The film came out nearly 100 years after the Lumiere Brothers frightened audiences with their all-too-realistic Arrival of a Train, which is referenced in the last scene of Speed, and just a few years before American action film would be altered completely by 9/11. Jan de Bont’s film is one of the most ambitious debut films ever in that it seems to ask the question: what if the Lumiere Brothers’ 50 second film was stretched into a feature, infused with action tropes of the past few decades, and this time, the train could come through the screen for real.
Legend has it that when Arrival of a Train, the first movie to screen in a theater, premiered, the audience jumped from their seats in fear as the train approached. Speed follows a similar plot to the short film: a vehicle moving from Point A to Point B with passengers getting on and off. Now de Bont’s film includes more gun play, F-bombs, and a lot more real bombs, but the mechanics are the same. The last scene of the movie even features a subway train derailing and bursting through a wooden screen as onlookers flee in fear.
Beyond its similarities to the 1896 action movie, Speed links up action history through its relationship to more recent action movies. De Bont came into directing Speed with the momentum of being the cinematographer for Die Hard, Black Rain, The Hunt for Red October, and Basic Instinct. Not only did de Bont understand action history, he had a hand in creating much of it. He gave his movie a similar texture to Die Hard and Black Rain, but by directing it was able to give it even a little more heart. With faces of hostages in most of the frames of the movie, empathy moves at a faster pace than most other action movies.
Jumping the Gaps
During one crucial moment, Traven learns from his Lieutenant that a section of the highway up ahead hasn’t been completed. The gap is about 50 feet long. Forced into making a quick decision, Traven alerts the bus riders and then informs them that they will try to jump the gap. The gap jump is a moment of pure cinematic bliss. Traven tells Annie to floor it and right as they near the gap, he fearfully covers her head with his body and they duck down. The bus flies into the air and against all odds makes the 50 foot jump.
At the time of release, most mainstream action movies dealt with primarily white characters living in a primarily white world. Speed bypasses this trend though by having the cast on the bus make up a much more realistic L.A. community. It’s a forced community that does not ignore class differences, but from the racial and socioeconomic diversity found on the bus — all the way to the white Midwestern tourist — Speed jumps many of the gaps set up by prior films.
This same racial and class diversity informs many of the obstacles faced by Traven and the passengers. Right after Traven first boards the bus and announces that he’s LAPD, a man from the back of the bus pulls a gun out of fear that he’ll either be arrested or more likely killed by the officer. More than simply set into motion other features of the plot, this confrontation forces everyone, Traven included, to reckon with the tension between the people and the cops. The tourist (Alan Ruck) calls back this tension later when a fellow rider asks if the police are going to help them. He replies, “Sure they are, they’re the police. Your taxes are paying their salaries. We die, they gotta take a pay cut!” He’s met with eye rolls and sighs as his comment not only disregards their own lives but also disregards the history of racism and brutality against the people of color currently sitting on this bus.
Bombs are Made to Explode
Towards the end of the film, Payne monologues to Traven, “A bomb is made to explode. That’s its meaning. Its purpose. Your life is empty because you spend it trying to stop the bomb from becoming. And for who? For what? You know what a bomb is, Jack, that doesn’t explode? It’s a cheap gold watch, buddy.” De Bont understood what audiences wanted when making this film. Audiences want to see the bombs explode, but don’t want to see the tragedy that could come alongside the explosion. Because of this, de Bont never breaks any of his promises.
The bus does explode. Even more than that, it impacts a massive, empty passenger plane right at the moment of explosion, causing the explosion to be 3-4 times larger than it would be otherwise. When it explodes, though, the passengers have already exited and the hero and heroine have essentially ridden off into the sunset.
At another time when Annie has just started driving the bus, an inattentive woman with a stroller accidentally pushes her stroller directly into the path of the bus. As Annie hits it and lets out a scream, the tantalizingly horrific situation turns to comedy when soup cans go flying from the stroller instead of a child. The stroller is the bomb that goes off without the tragic loss of life as well.
Sometimes sparks are good, though. Two of the most romantic scenes from any movie take place in the final minutes of Speed. Traven and Annie have spent the movie flirting as much as they can given their circumstances and right before the bomb goes off, they evacuate through the bottom of the bus and ride the metal exit panel off into the distance. Sparks literally fly as the metal slides across the pavement and the two are allowed for the first time to take each other in and take a deep breath. Minutes later as they are on the derailing subway, Payne has died and they can only hope to survive the impact of the subway, Annie slips her handcuffed hands around Traven’s head and they look into each other's eyes. Relationships built around extreme circumstances might never make it, but their flame will burn bright.
When looking back on the history of films that led to Speed and my own personal path that led me to Speed, it’s difficult to parse through what is truly, objectively excellent about the movie. Yet I do know that when the bus first reaches 50 mph and the bomb clicks from green to red, it commences a sprint that won’t let my heartbeat slow until the very last shot.