Why “Speed” Is The Best Goddamn Action Movie Ever Made

1994 was a big year for North American movies. Several films that are now considered transcendent, including Pulp FictionThe Shawshank RedemptionForrest Gump and Hoop Dreams were all released during that calendar year, enthralling audiences the world over. However, all of those titles pale in comparison to another ’94 title, an incredible achievement of cinematic perfection that has gone down in the annals of pop culture history as one of the most exciting experiences ever committed to celluloid. I’m talking, of course, about Speed.

The story about the heroic LAPD officer (Keanu Reeves) who will stop at nothing to thwart a mad arsonist (Dennis Hopper) from blowing up a city bus full of innocent people is as exciting as movies get. You often hear about films that are “non-stop action” or “pulse-pounding roller coaster rides,” but nearly as often, action pictures billed as such don’t live up to the hype. I don’t want to shit on too many legacies here, but has anyone actually seen Die Hard recently? Parts of it are exciting, but every so often the script stops the momentum dead in its tracks so John McClane can talk to the cop over the radio, or light his 37th cigarette, or pull shards of glass from his bare foot. Not exactly what I’d call “non-stop.”

Also, what about Terminator 2: Judgement Day? You know, the movie with the evil T-1000 that is made of liquid metal, which supposedly makes it the coolest action film ever made? Again, parts of T2 are exciting, but it’s also nearly two-and-a-half hours long and full of cheesy-ass moments like this one:

Like I said, not exactly “pulse-pounding” material, at least not the whole way through. You know what is though? Speed. The first time I watched it, when I was a kid, I was completely engrossed in the story, in part because the plot mimicked the on-screen bus that was hurtling through the streets of Los Angeles: it wasn’t going to stop and wait for you to catch up.

Let’s talk about the screenplay in more detail for a second. The legend goes that a whole bunch of people (nearly Keanu Reeves as well) turned this movie down because they thought it read like an overt Die Hard clone and, you know what, if the entire film were to play out like the opening elevator shaft rescue, I’d probably agree. And yes, I’ll concede, the writing can rely on contrivances and is satisfied with simply being formulaic, but it’s the best kind of formulaic. Speed is a movie that is best watched with a large group of people, all of whom are sitting around the screen with a giant bowl of popcorn in one hand, their cocktail of choice in another and their “holy shit” meter open for business.

One of the best facets of the script? There are no sappy backstories or unnecessarily idiotic explanations that try and squeeze more depth out of characters and a story that is in no need of such treatment. In Speed, the writers understand that the audience cares less about that then they do about the homoerotic undertones of another Reeves classic, Point Break. A movie like this doesn’t need exposition; it needs thrills. Explosions. Close calls. More explosions. That’s what we’re watching for fercrissakes.

The characters, from the leads to the cameos, might be my favorite part of this movie. Again, the writing doesn’t oversell any of them, mainly because the premise is so good and never lets any overwrought nonsense get in the way of the bus, its journey and the final outcome of the terrorist plot. Further to that, with the exception of Hopper’s arsonist, which he plays with an over-the-top zealousness that is sorely lacking in a lot of action movie villains today (let’s be real: the current era of action-adventure antagonists that we’re currently mired in, which often presents us with a turtleneck-wearing, bespectacled evil genius who is about as threatening as this jar of hummus sitting next to me on the kitchen table, is growing tiresome), each of the leads is quite likable. Keanu Reeves is established as a reckless-yet-goodhearted cop who, like McClane before him, relies more on his wits that he does on brute strength at the end of the day. Sandra Bullock, who has never been more delightful in a motion picture, is tough yet, when needed, can also be vulnerable. She ends up making quite the sidekick for Reeves, first as a Girl Friday who thinks that driving a bus is like driving a “really big Pinto,” and then, when the sexual chemistry really starts to boil over, into a love interest that doesn’t mind it when random tourists snap photos of her after multiple near-death experiences.

Another thing that helps build tension when you’d least expect it? The passengers not named Sandra Bullock on the bus. Many are familiar faces, including Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Carla’ mother from No Country For Old Men, and all have this nice collective character arc. Many of them are annoying or obnoxious when Reeves first boards the bus, which always struck me as less than understanding. I mean, here’s a guy who just jumped from the driver’s seat of a sports car onto a bus while both vehicles are moving, and what does he get in return? Several people saying that he’s freaking them out and one Latino guy tries to shoot him. And people wonder why, when you say that public transit isn’t that bad, people get this look on their face that you just made out with a blood relative. Anyways, my point was that, as Reeves proves his worth and the situations get increasingly dangerous as the film hums along, the characters on the bus become more confident, less shrill and, in certain key moments, actually help Keanu avoid certain death.

Speaking of certain death, let’s talk about the goddamn bus jump. It’s nothing short of incredible in every sense – the urgency of the soundtrack, the way the camera lingers on the distraught faces of the passengers right before the jump, the reverse angle of the bus sticking the landing and the eruption of cheers from all those who survive the ordeal. It’s the kind of movie moment that, when it’s over, you’ll almost want to leap out of your seat and hug the person next to you in celebration. I nearly did that when I watched it again recently, but unfortunately, there was an open beverage that I didn’t want to spill. It’s not only the highlight of this film, the crowning moment in this jewel of an action picture and potentially one of the most memorable movie stunts of all time. Quick, name me another non-acting moment that defines not only the picture it’s in, but to a certain extent, an entire genre. Yeah, didn’t think so.

Jan de Bont, the dude who lensed the original Die Hard, does a masterful job of keeping this movie moving even when we take a small break from the fast-paced action sequences. Once the main portion of the plot is off and running (in Keanu’s case, literally so), the momentum never slows. Even where there are small moments of character development or “a-ha” reveals to be had, the bus never stops moving and, even when it does, the story’s own climax is more than enough. In short, Speed is the kind of sheer entertainment that Hollywood doesn’t really remember how to make any more. The closest we come these days is something like Mad Max: Fury Road, which is also excellent but owes more than a little debt to this absolutely insane thrill ride of a flick. For pure adrenaline-charged excitement, it’s the best action movie ever made.

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