You hear it said almost every time a poorly received blockbuster comes out. “You need more than just action to make a movie” — but — do you? “Speed” is really special in that regard, it is able to make a film that is exciting to the extreme all the way through, and have the minimum of side plot and, in what is apparently a necessary part of today’s blockbuster strategy, side boob. Credit where credit’s due, this is the sort of film I can imagine a traditional critic being surprised to find himself actually enjoying a movie based off pure suspense and action. I can’t currently — bearing in mind it is fairly early in my film career — think of another film that does what “Speed” does as well as “Speed” does it, but I can think of a hundred that try.
Whenever I mention “Speed” the most common response is “is that the one with the bus?”. Absolutely it is, but this is no normal bus, this bus is rigged to explode and will arm when the driver goes over 50 mph, and will then explode if he goes below. Jack Travern (Keanu Reeves) is the officer that has to do his best to save the passengers that have been put under threat by the villain of the film who is well played by Dennis Hopper. The plot is basic and the narrative is equally basic, but there is so much going for the film beyond both of these things that it just isn’t an issue.
John Stuart Mill, a 19th century philosopher, believed there was a way to categorise the pleasures we experience. There was what he called “higher pleasures” and then there was “lower pleasures”. Lower pleasures were physical pleasures (such as food and sex) and higher pleasures were of the mind (reading a book and writing for example.) “Speed” is the best lower pleasure you can ever experience on film. It does not task the mind with anything complex and just shows you events that are ramped on suspense. It taps into your base desire for a roller-coaster ride of emotions. “Speed” has terror, tension, happiness and the wish to shout “No!” as loud as you can as if this will stop what is taking place from happening. It’s futile, but you are so wrapped up in the film all the way through that you just don’t care.
Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) and Jack Travern have a bit of a relationship that develops throughout the film. I’m not a big fan of Bullock but she is suitable here, particularly entertaining was when she discloses whilst driving the bus that the reason she was on there in the first place was because she got her driver’s license revoked — for speeding. Keanu Reeves is Keanu Reeves, he squints, he speaks with his trademark gruff voice, he tenses muscles and he gets the job done. A brilliant actor he is not, but a suitable one for this? Absolutely.
My advice for “Speed” is to forget rationality. I know for some people it’s tough, but the suspension of disbelief you’ll need for this one is a pretty big ask. I think most people will be at odds with the film for the fact that the bus was able to jump a 50 feet gap. I couldn’t care less, it just meant that I could find myself with only one cheek on my chair for a while longer.
The next time you just need to wind down and watch an easy film, watch “Speed” and see what the blockbuster can do with a smart film maker behind the camera. Jan De Bont, I salute you.