A great movie back in 1994, and still a great movie today, we shouldn’t allow the recent talk of a Speed 3 to cloud our remembrance of this Keanu Reeves action thriller; it’s dumb as a box of rocks. See an LAPD SWAT division who wait in the side-lines for youngster Jack Traven (Reeves) to come up with ideas! See how blackmailer Howard Payne is outsmarted by looping a minute of CCTV footage, and then foiled again when authorities break trust by putting a dye-pack in his ransom money! See cop Harry (Jeff Daniels) rush to a suspect location without ever imagining a potential trap! Obviously, pre 9/11 action movies didn’t have to worry too much about public knowledge of chain-of –command or even reasonably prepared baddies, but the internal logic featured in Jan de Bont’s film defies…logic.
Fortunately, none of this matters a jot, since Speed offers the simple pleasures of a great action film, a deep blue hero, a feisty gal who is more than a match when it comes to action (Sandra Bullock’s Annie), and an airy, sunny outdoorsy feel gained from an LA shoot. Speed isn’t quite how you remember it; remember the lift stand-off between Traven and Payne that opens the film? It’s a lot longer and more detailed than you think; more than half an hour elapses before Traven exits a Santa Monica convenience store to find a bus exploding. Former Atlanta bomb-squad expert Payne (Dennis Hopper) isn’t happy with his retirement package, and decides to gain revenge on Traven at the same time as advancing his case by putting a bomb on a cross-town bus that’ll explode if the bus drops below 50mph. With the world watching on tv alongside Payne, it’s up to Jack Traven to save the bus, Annie and the day, before a final boss-level underground confrontation.
Speed’s sequel was famously bad, but the original movie plays like the first three movies of a trilogy; a stripped down first story in a lift-shaft establishing Traven and Payne’s cat and mouse game, a souped-up action packed sequel on the freeway, and a unnecessary retread-reboot with a final mano a mano confrontation in a not-very-convincing CGI tunnel. Reeves is great in all three, but the second section, in which he and Bullock show the chemistry that’s kept them at the top for the last 25 years, is the stand-out. ‘That guy sure has a hard-on for this bus,’ comments one passenger, and the ingenious ways that Traven manages to get on and off Annie’s bus are still crowd-pleasing fare today.
Can we finally acknowledge, with a roster of franchises ranging from comedy (Bill and Ted) to sci-fi action (The Matrix) to martial arts thrillers (John Wick) that Reeves is one of the great stars, not just action, not just thrillers, but just a big name that reliably promises a good movie? After wisely bailing on the second instalment, Reeves proved himself a top audience-identification figure, and shorn of the high seriousness that has bedevilled action since, the pumped-up antics of Speed give him every chance to shine. Speed is a lucky film that catches big talents on their way up, as well as a super haircut for the star; with plenty more close shaves to recount, Speed is one of the great action concepts. The take-away is, we don’t need a sequel here, we need a modern, ass-kicking cinematic universe with Jack Traven right at the centre of it…