Well, since “Speed” happened to be on TV the night before I prepared this review, I thought that I’d set up the DVR.
Although I’d vaguely thought about looking at this film during my “1990s films” review series a month or two ago, I decided against it at the time (partly due to the cost of second-hand DVD copies and partly due to the film’s running time).
Plus, since it’s a film that I haven’t seen since I watched it on VHS sometimes during the early-mid 2000s, I thought that it was about time that I took another look at it. Yes, everyone’s probably already seen this film at least once. But, well, nostalgia.
So, let’s take a look at “Speed”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
“Speed” is an action/thriller film from 1994 starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. It begins in an office building in California, where a criminal (played by Dennis Hopper) threatens to crash a sabotaged lift full of people if he isn’t paid $3 million.
When the police arrive, bomb squad officers Jack (Keanu Reeves) and Harry (Jeff Daniels) decide to attempt a daring rescue. However, after eventually managing to free the passengers from the lift before it plummets into oblivion, Jack realises that the criminal must still be in the building. In fact, he’s in the lift beside the one he sabotaged.
After a tense stand-off, in which Harry is wounded, the criminal manages to get away. But, given that the passengers were saved, the cops decide to call it a day and celebrate.
The next morning, Jack is nursing a hangover and getting ready to go back to work when a nearby bus explodes in a spectacular fashion. After realising that he can’t save the driver, he notices that a nearby payphone is ringing. Picking it up, he suddenly realises that he’s talking to the criminal from the office – who is absolutely furious that he didn’t get his three million dollars.
The criminal tells Jack that he’s planted another bomb on the 2525 bus and that, once the bus goes above 50mph, the mechanism will be activated. However, if the bus then goes less than 50mph, it will detonate. Needless to say, Jack has to find that bus….
One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is a textbook example of an action thriller movie done right. This film is like a carefully-orchestrated symphony, with a defined three-act structure (involving a lift, a bus and a train) and expertly-controlled suspense.
Every few minutes, something will happen that helps to ramp up the tension. For example, the bus’s fuel tank will spring a leak, there will be a traffic jam etc… Seriously, this film is a testament to the power of creativity and inventiveness. Not only is the premise of keeping a bus travelling more than 50mph a fairly inventive one, but the fact that the film is able to keep what is essentially a one-hour bus journey thrillingly suspenseful is quite an achievement.
The film’s three-act structure is also handled really well too. The first segment of the film, involving a lift, helps to introduce the premise of the film in a thrilling way. The second act, set on the bus, is pretty much a self-contained thriller film in it’s own right. Then the final segment of the film, set on a train, allows for a dramatic resolution to the few plot points that were left unresolved in the second act.
In addition to making the film seem like “three films in one”, this structure also helps to counterbalance the film’s relatively long (by 1990s standards) running time. Although I was initially wary about the fact that the film is nearly two hours long, it never feels bloated. If anything, it almost feels like they’ve managed to cram three hours worth of storytelling into those two hours. In other words, this is a rare example of a relatively long film that actually justifies it’s length.
Another inventive thing about this film is that, for a thriller movie, it is relatively non-violent.
Yes, there are a few explosions and several scenes involving guns. But, the main “action” in the film revolves around the film’s main characters using both teamwork and their brains in order to save lives and outwit the criminal. Although Jack is the film’s main “hero”, he’s nothing without other characters such as Harry, a passenger called Annie (played by Sandra Bullock) and the other police officers.
This focus on realistic teamwork and intelligent fast-paced problem-solving also helps to lend the film a warm “feel-good” emotional tone that you don’t really get in “lone hero” action movies or more modern superhero-based action movies. This focus on teamwork in the thriller genre is something from the 1990s (which can also be seen in movies like “Broken Arrow” and games like the original “Resident Evil“) which you don’t really see quite as often today. And, well, I really miss when films used to be like this.
In addition to this, the film also contains a small amount of social commentary too. The main motivation behind the villain’s actions (apart from extreme greed) is the fact that he’s a retired man with a meagre pension and a feeling that there’s no purpose to his life.
Likewise, the rear end of the bus has a sarcastic advertising poster that reads “Money isn’t everything (yeah, right.)“. Given that the film’s villain is obsessed with money, to the point of being willing to kill for it, this small detail really adds something to the film.
The film’s special effects and action sequences still stand up extremely well to this day. Since the film uses timeless practical effects and has a fairly large budget, the effects still look pretty spectacular. These include everything from lots of extremely well-choreographed vehicle stunts, a couple of relatively understated combat scenes to a number of melodramatic explosions.
Plus, although the film is mostly set during the day and within bright, summery locations- there is at least a small amount of the kind of really cool ultra-gloomy lighting and inventive set design that is so characteristic of films from the 1980s/1990s (which can mostly be found within the final third of the film):
The film’s acting and characterisation is fairly good too. Although Keanu Reeves plays the kind of stoic character that you would expect him to play, he is contrasted brilliantly by Sandra Bullock’s expert performance as a more reluctant hero. Her character’s courage is emphasised by the fact that she reacts to a lot of the film’s events in a more realistic way (eg: shock, sarcasm, nervousness etc..). Seriously, this is one of Bullock’s best performances.
In addition to this, Dennis Hopper’s performance as the film’s villain is really good too. Whilst he comes across as slightly maniacal, he tends to be a slightly more understated evil character who bears a grudge and is willing to sink to any sociopathic depth in order to get the money he feels is owed to him.
The only slight flaw in the film is probably the dialogue. Since the emphasis is on the thrilling and suspenseful events of the film, the dialogue often tends to take a back seat. Yes, there are some fairly good lines of dialogue in the film but most of the dialogue is just “functional” realistic dialogue that fits in well with the events of the film. It’s ok, but nothing spectacular.
All in all, this is the kind of fun, thrilling “feel-good” popcorn movie that shows why the cinema of the 1990s is still highly-regarded to this day. It has an inventive premise, a well-designed structure, almost constant suspense and an emphasis on both teamwork and intelligent problem-solving. There’s a good reason why this film is regarded as a classic. It’s a timeless example of a well-made thriller movie.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get five.