If You Don't Like SPEED, I Will Fight You

If You Don't Like SPEED, I Will Fight You

Watch this one on your date tonight.

When I was eight years old, all I cared about was my Super Nintendo, playing with my Power Rangers flip head action figure, and watching Big Bad Beetleborgs at 4:30 after school.

Maybe my mom was sick of having to put up with all the jumping and kicking around the house, but one afternoon she sat me down and said, 

"Son, I think you're ready to watch this new American classic called Speed."

"Surely you jest, mother." I responded. "That is an R rated film and I am eight years old!"

I'd seen the poster, and it looked something like this:

A fiery bus. An angry looking dude. The word "rollercoaster". Clearly this movie was made for me. What I did not expect, however, was for Speed to put me on a direct trajectory towards my love of cinema. This flick changed my life.

On paper, this premise is simple enough: An LA bus is armed with explosives. If it goes below fifty miles per hour, it'll explode and kill everyone on it. This movie could have been anything. It could have been a Die Hard clone like every other film made in 1994. It could have starred Nicolas Cage. 

But it fucking didn't.

Yes, the action is competent and indulgent in the way only a 90's summer blockbuster can be, but what sets this film apart from the rest of the pack is its strong characterization. This film is populated with not only likable, relatable, and most importantly, smart people; stuff that even eight year old me easily clocked. It also holds up perfectly in 2017.

Speed's sole credited screenwriter is Graham Yost (later known for Justified, a show with similar police dick-swagger). However, it was the worst kept secret in Hollywood that Joss Whedon did an uncredited production rewrite, changing a large percentage of the dialogue and characters.

And looking back, it makes much more sense that the man who gave us Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Avengers, Angeland Firefly has a deft hand in juggling absurd premises with grounded, realistic portrayals.

But let's get to this fucking movie, guys.

We don't open on or anywhere near a bus. We open on the furthest thing from it - an elevator in a corporate, downtown high rise, filled with people who seem truly unlikable. One guy derides another for something that clearly went wrong in the board room five minutes ago. Another guy sensually smells the neck of the blonde lady next to him. What I'm saying is fuck these people. But then, ten seconds later--

The elevator cables explode. The car goes careening down the shaft. The metal box is filled with screams. And then it grinds to a halt. 

It turns out that the elevator has been taken hostage by a mad bomber (played by a very game Dennis Hopper). This is a man who enjoys that he's saying the most cliched things in the world. He also likes money. Specifically when it's given to him in sets of three million dollars.

Enter Officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves, who just crushes this part), who arrives in the film by literally flying on to the scene in a Crown Vic. After years of sitting through dozens of rote John McClane imitations, it is immediately noticeable that Jack is a different, more refreshing kind of reckless cop.

Keanu's Jack is just more interested in doing his job. He's polite, he respects his commander (and his commander is Joe Morton! This movie is a gift), and he takes special care to keep a situation calm. He's also capable of some gallows humor (when asked what's keeping the elevator from going down, he dryly replies "the basement"), but it's only aimed at his police buddies.

Anyway, Jack and his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels, in his first of two Harry roles in 1994) engage in a time sensitive rescue of these awful fucking passengers. But by the time we've made it to this moment, the situation is so dire that we want to see them out of that hellscape. And this is where Speed has us. If it can get us to care about an intense pressure cooker situation with victims we don't like, then there's no telling what can happen when it gives you characters we do care about.

This expertly crafted, extended first act serves two purposes. First, we get an appetizer before our main course; all of this is an overture of things to come. Secondly, and more importantly, we get to know Jack, the bomber, and their relationship long before we set foot on the bus that can't slow down. By the time we reach it, we're in, and able to track why and how.

The Bus.

The mad bomber is now super pissed that hotshot Jack Traven has ruined his fucking day; that elevator shit took two years to plan. So naturally, the bomber plants explosives on a Santa Monica transit bus. He gives Jack the courtesy call before things get out of control, daring LAPD's most polite and badass officer to best him once again.  

But nope, now we don't follow Jack. We cut to the bus, and Sandra Bullock's Annie running to catch it. Annie's a woman who's been saddled with a suspended license and now has to take it to work. When the sweet driver Sam lets her on, she's already getting hit on by Alan Ruck. Annie doesn't take this shit, and in her first minute of screen time, she skillfully improvises a way out of an impossible social situation.

My point is Annie's fucking awesome.

The bus is a little bit of a microcosm of Los Angeles - we have Annie, a tourist (that's Ruck), a construction worker, an old lady, a gangbanger, and not one but TWO elderly couples. This movie is diverse as shit, and while it leans on the stereotypes a little too much in a few scenes, Speed might be the most progressive blockbuster of the nineties. Certainly 1994.

This ensemble has nothing in common except for this bomb, which will most assuredly blow them apart unless they have the one impossible commodity in a city like Los Angeles:

Trust.

This shit is so relevant in 2017 that it makes my head spin and it improves the movie even more so. When Keanu finally makes it on this bus (he jumps out a fucking Jaguar at 60 miles per hour into the door way), he makes it clear that he's a cop.

Jack's unique qualities shine through - it's clear that he doesn't have to be there. His ex-wife isn't on this bus, and he's not getting blackmailed. He's what writers call a "catalyst hero", someone who's already fully formed that inspires change or growth in others. Whoever's decision it was to get Reeves for this deserves way more money than they probably got.

Everybody's naturally suspicious for about five minutes before they realize Jack's the real deal, so they drop their drama and immediately start working together. And it doesn't once feel like "because the script demands it", it feels like that's what these people know they have to do.

Speed is far more suspenseful because it's filled with characters making evaluated and logical decisions. There isn't a single person who does something dumb or irrational (and when Beth Grant does and gets herself killed, it's set up very early that she's hysterical).

Moreover, Annie, with her take-no-shit attitude and overall desire to be a good person, has off-the-charts chemistry with Jack. Reeves and Bullock chew so much scenery, it's absolutely bananas that they haven't done five hundred things together. 

This is such a perfect flick that, despite the fact that it's 22 years old, I wouldn't dare spoil the rest. I could go on for years about this thing.

If you're looking for a movie for tonight with that special someone, or if you were thinking about revisiting something you haven't seen in a long time, you couldn't make a better choice than Speed.

Terry Erickson is a screenwriter, lifelong film fan, and all around good guy based in Baltimore, MD. He's driven across America twice, is obsessed with Back To The Future, and loves almost everybody.