Racing Movie Month: "Speed" Review

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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Rating: PG-13
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: June 10, 1994
Directed by: Jan de Bont
Genre: Action / Crime / Thriller

"Speed," released in 1994 and directed by Jan de Bont, features an all-star cast and a hard-driving suspense-filled plot that fueled its success and spawned a 1997 sequel, "Speed 2: Cruise Control." Starring fan-favorite Keanu Reeves, the movie also features Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper and Jeff Daniels. The film won Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Effects. Sandra Bullock also won a Saturn Award for Best Actress from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.

Keanu Reeves stars as a SWAT officer Jack Traven, who places himself on a bus that will explode if its speed drops below 50 miles per hour. But the real action begins some time earlier, when Reeves, along with bomb squad officer Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels), miraculously save 13 hostages from a high-rise elevator. Placed under ransom, their lives are threatened unless demands are met. After saving the day, however, Traven earns the personal wrath of sociopath bad guy Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), who devises an ingenious bomb that is controlled by speed.

On the bus, Officer Traven recruits passenger Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) to take over for the indisposed driver. While she figures out how to keep the rig above the allotted speed, Traven tries to reason with Payne to reach a safe conclusion. In scene after action-packed scene, the audience is drawn closer and closer to the edge of their seats. From Traven hanging under the bus in an attempt to diffuse the bomb to marginal characters being injured or killed off along the way, the thrills continue ramping up without relief.

Action movies often fall into the trap of following a rote plot with predictable twists and outcomes. "Speed" avoids that trap. Just when the audience believes that the movie has finally reached its ultimate point, another curve is thrown. After Traven successfully removes the remaining passengers from the bus, Payne pulls another trick from his sleeve and kidnaps Porter, setting off an entirely new round of drama and action.

As an actor who shot quickly to glory in the 1990s, Keanu Reeves does a phenomenal job transforming from his typical roles of philosophical and often introspective characters to an intensely focused SWAT officer in this film. Drawing obvious comparisons to Bruce Willis' role in "Die Hard," Reeves delivers a solid performance as Traven. He still has the opportunity to bring his distinctive charm to this title, as evidenced by the clear on-screen chemistry with Sandra Bullock's character. In addition, the relationships he forms with both bomb squader Temple and deranged killer Payne show the depth of his acting skills.

Sandra Bullock is another actress whose star shot into the heavens during the 1990s, and her role in "Speed" is definitely one of the cornerstones of her early career. Few actors can portray a unique mix of fear and competence as well as Bullock, and she does so quite capably in this film. As the movie progresses and her role grows larger, and particularly when she becomes a hostage in the climactic subway scenes, Bullock is able to connect with both the audience and her fellow actors in real and memorable ways.

It can be incredibly hard to connect with villains, who are typically portrayed flatly and with nary a saving grace. However, Hopper manages to bring his character to life quite convincingly. As more is learned about Howard Payne's background – his time as a police officer, his grudges against society – the audience can't help but have a certain sympathy for someone whose life has become derailed. Until his final scene in the movie, Hopper delivers a calculated performance that both repulses and fascinates viewers.

Despite the movie not following the tired, worn-out course forged by previous thrillers, "Speed" still contains all of the elements of a typical action film: guns, high-speed chases, graphic death scenes and huge explosions. The editing crew of this film pulled off such a good job that their work garnered several award nominations and wins. And one of the best elements of the action elements in "Speed" is ingenuity. Traven didn't just get people off the elevator; he rigged the elevator cable not to snap as the bad guy had planned. The rigged bus didn't simply explode; it took a jet with it. Traven and Porter didn't simply escape the subway car; they rode it in style up to Hollywood Boulevard, kissing all the while.

Released 20 years ago, "Speed" has withstood the test of time and continues to captivate audiences around the world. It has won awards not only in the United States, but also in Germany and Japan. It earned more than $120 million at the box office in the US alone. And two decades later, fans can still revel in its thrills.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5