Speed (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Place your foot on the accelerator. Press down. Watch the needle on the speedometer creep above fifty. Now you're trapped. Whatever happens, you can't drop below that level - if you do, you're dead, and everyone on the bus with you. It might not be tough to maintain that speed on the freeway in the middle of the night, but this is rush hour. So what do you do when the traffic ahead comes to a screeching halt, without an off-ramp in sight?

It's an ingenious premise that first-time director Jan De Bont has turned into a tremendously well-executed motion picture. A mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) wants $3.7 million, and he'll stop at nothing to get it - and to obtain a small measure of revenge on Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves), a cop who foiled one of his plots. So he rigs up a bomb on a bus that becomes armed when the vehicle goes over fifty, and is primed to explode when it drops below that speed. And it's Jack's job to save all the people on board, including himself.

Good action movies are rare. Great action movies come along once every few years. Speed deserves a place in the latter category, being the most breath-stoppingly thrilling motion picture to open since the original Die Hard. This is a film that cries out for audience participation, whether it be the silent majority's digging of fingers into armrests or the vocal minority's cheers and catcalls. Speed is by no means an intellectual challenge, but it's probably the most fun you can have in any theater at this time.

With a single exception (that of the bus "flying" through the air), the stunts and special effects are flawlessly incorporated. And there are a lot of them. A whole lot. You could almost call this film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, although for entirely different reasons than those behind the naming of the Steve Martin/John Candy flick. Speed is clearly divided into three acts, each no less draining than the others. The first and last (which involve an elevator and a train, respectively) bookend the longer and better sequence on the bus. The film may clock in at nearly two hours, but the time, like the various vehicles, races. There is, quite literally, never a dull moment.

Of course, there are plot contrivances. How could there not be? But these are subtle and convincingly woven into the fabric of the story. While watching Speed, you may notice one or two (for an example, consider how a bus traveling at fifty-two can slam into a car and have its speed not drop below the red line), but you won't care much. The low-level but persistent humor is used to blot the tension. Most of the one-liners aren't as good as those in Die Hard, but a few are worth a chuckle, and they serve their purpose. This is not, after all, supposed to be a comedy.

I never thought I'd be saying this, but Keanu Reeves does an excellent job. The actor has the perfect demeanor for Jack Traven, the cocky cop who tries hard not to get emotionally involved - and inevitably fails. Reeves' attitude and physical appearance are ideal, and even those who visibly winced during his scenes in Much Ado About Nothing are likely to accept him here. Sandra Bullock (probably best known from Demolition Man), as the passenger who takes the wheel from the incapacitated driver, possesses enough charisma and spunk not to get outshone by her co-stars. Dennis Hopper turns in one of his patented performances as a psychotic killer.

There are reasons why the preview audiences have been raving about Speed, and a purpose to moving the opening date from August to June. This movie is a winner, and the closest you can get to an amusement park ride in a theater. Perhaps the same warning that's used for roller coasters should be applied here. You know, the one about high blood pressure and heart problems.

Speed (United States, 1994)

Director: Jan De Bont
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels, Joe Morton
Screenplay: Graham Yost
Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Music: Mark Mancina
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1994-06-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1