Robb Sheppard on the ultimate 90s action movie, Speed…
The 1990s witnessed a changing of the guard when it came to action movies. Speed crashed into 1994 and went from being “that bus movie” to one of the decade’s finest straight-up action films. Alongside the gloriously OTT Con Air, the far-fetched Face/Off, and Michael Bay’s ‘masterpiece’ The Rock, a slew of Dolph Lundgren, Van Damme and Steven Segal movies were sent straight to DVD. Speed itself had no sci-fi elements, no Kung Fu kicks and not even an ounce of espionage, but it has the strongest claim as the 90’s ultimate action film.
Although it doesn’t seem the case from the credits: Speed struggles getting out of first gear with opening titles looking like the work of Word Art. Thankfully, the extended opening title sequence builds the tension and sets up Speed as a cinematic event which teems with a sense of occasion.
Titles aside, this is a world where everything feels tangible: characters are clammy from the LA heat, panicked and painted with strokes of swarf. A three-act structure is taken a little too literally by director Jan de Bont, who stacks his set pieces accordingly: an elevator hostage scenario introduces his characters, the conflict is established in the second act’s travelling bus bomb, and he reaches his resolution aboard the final runaway tube train. Sounds formulaic, but it comes across as nothing but fresh.
The practical effects pay off in spades too. The vast number of colliding vehicles seem convincing rather than choreographed. Awkward actor landings and scrappy stunts give the impression that the action is real, rather than rehearsed whilst the final ‘bus meets plane’ explosion features a reaction shot from the former passengers which looks like they’ve witnessed something slightly short of nuclear.
The minimal CGI worked wonders for Speed – the birds flocking through the gap in the freeway is the only noticeable computer-generated effect – and the sense of realism was heightened with aerial news footage of the careering coach adding an air of authenticity. The footage conjured images of the then-accused murderer OJ Simpson’s globally reported freeway chase, making the scene more believable in the minds of the audience.
Mark Mancina’s score is heroically realised: all swelling horns and grand marching band percussion set the pace of the film. The only occasion where it relents, is in the tender reworking of the main theme which accompanies the film’s climax, as Annie and Jack accept their fate and brace themselves for the final, presumably fatal collision.
Its emotional resonance is undeniable: the viewer knows deep down that our heroes will survive, but the score manages to evoke the smallest slither of doubt, even if only for a split second. No mean feat and no wonder that Speed won the Oscar for Best Sound and Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing.
Having said that, it’s not all perfectly pitched. Billy Idol’s closing rendition of ‘Speed’ is so 80s Metal that you can almost taste the hairspray and it is a jarringly misjudged parting note.
What is perfectly pitched, however, is Dennis Hopper’s performance as the disgruntled former cop Howard Payne. Here is an elder who is obsessed with his intelligence and everyone else’s lack thereof and he’s quick to assert his masculinity and assumed authority over the young upstarts Jack and Harry (Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels). His emphatic “Don’t fuck with Daddy” sets out his stall early on, as well as referencing his role as the equally reprehensible Frank “Daddy” Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Joss Whedon’s uncredited dialogue is delivered with precision by Hopper, helping him to command every single scene he’s in.
Payne’s death feels well-deserved and without ceremony with a “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” flavour to it. Once he’s outwitted, his last-ditch attempt to physically overcome Jack (Reeves) falls flat and reeks of desperation as they scuffle atop the train. His eventual beheading is quick, clean and decisive; like snapping of the head off an action figure.
The heart of the film belongs to Sandra Bullock though. Far from the helpless love interest role which Annie may have become in someone else’s hands, Bullock asserts herself from the start: adeptly dealing with over talkative tourists, deflecting the dialogue with pessimistic passengers and being the first to confront Jack when he finally manages to board the bus.
Once she’s in charge of the bus – and the passengers are under no illusion of anything different – her emotional responses to the circumstances are measured, reflecting early moments of panic (“Stay on or get off?”), a relatable rationality (her grief as she runs over a child’s pram) and not allowing herself to decompress until the action has subsided.
She challenges Jack’s thought process whenever necessary and regardless of her eventual kidnapping, their final scene together ends with Annie in charge of the action and in a sexually dominant position which feels fortuitous rather than merely a male fantasy.
Finally, let’s get on to Keanu himself. Jan de Bont insisted on Jack’s closely cropped hair in the name of LAPD authenticity, even though it caused a stir with the studio who expected his trademark locks to be blowing in the 50-mph wind. It works a treat though as he’s every bit the action hero: he owns the action scenes and revels in the grimy aesthetic that comes with greasy lift shafts, oily bus undercarriages and your average subway train.
As always with Reeves, his greatest performances play off his limitations as an actor. Here, his intelligence is questioned by all around him whilst he continues to quietly outsmart everyone around him. His gum-chewing and calm, considered assessment of each scenario does more for him as a character than dialogue ever could.
That’s not to say that Keanu’s disconnected. His chemistry with Sandra Bullock sold Speed just as well as the iconic bus jump, and his bromance with Ortiz/Gigantor (Carlos Carrasco) is suitably under-stated, even if there is a bit too much testes-talk. Reeves even gets the action hero honours by firing off an Arnie-style zinger as he finally dispenses with the bad guy. It’s just another day on the job.
Pop quiz, hot shot: you have to choose the best nineties action movie? What do you do? What do you do?