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Every so often a film comes along that changes everything. Well, maybe not everything, but does something so fresh it becomes a new standard, an icon that becomes a turning point for a genre or actor. With Speed, a bomb thriller with a twist, it was both, an action movie that turned action movies upside down, and a rebirth of sorts for one lead and stratospheric leap into the superstardom for the other.
The story follows Los Angeles SWAT officers Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves), who, with his partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels), save an elevator full of trapped passengers from a mysterious bomber (Dennis Hoper) who is threatening to blow the cables unless he gets three millions dollars. When they corner the bomber, who takes Harry as hostage, Jack shoots his partner in the leg but loses the bomber, who appears to blow himself up. Called heroes, the two cops earn high praise and medals for their efforts, but little do they know, things are just getting started.
A bit later, the bomber is back, blowing up a bus right in front Jack, then calling him and warning him that a second bus is rigged to go off if the driver slows below 50 miles per hour. Jack jumps into action and tracks down the targeted city bus and manages to get aboard where a scuffle with another criminal, who coincidently happens to be riding, mistakenly thinks Jack is after him and shoots the driver, wounding him. This incites Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), a regular on the route, having lost her car license, to leap into the driver’s seat and take control of the bus. Once settled, now they’ve got to figure out how to get the passengers off the bus and stop the bomb without the bomber knowing, who has a camera already aboard and can see everything. As the tagline reads: Get ready for rush hour.
Directed by Jan de Bont, a longtime cinematographer, in his feature film directing debut, Speed is a rarity, a work of action escapism that almost redefined the genre. Working from a screenplay by Graham Yost, and inspired incidentally from Andrei Konchalovsky‘s 1985 thriller Runaway Train, the film is a near perfect mix of exaggerated realism and visual-effects with a smart script and terrific performances. Reeves, who proved himself a quality action star a few year earlier in Kathryn Bigelow‘s Point Break, was the producer’s second choice after Stephen Baldwin turned it down but came to be the better pick, absolutely owning the character, finding the tone and voice that would make him iconic. Believe it or not, that is thanks to Joss Whedon, who Yost called in to help doctor up parts of the script uncredited.
But it was perhaps Bullock who came out the most admired, her star-making turn fresh off the previous year’s Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone. Her natural charisma and high-energy take balanced the other side of the action scale and alongside Reeves, lit the screen up. The film was a huge box office hit and a critical favorite, earning acclaim for its direction and performance, but more so because it was just so darned fun, a film that kept it just authentic enough to feel real and silly enough to know it was all make-believe. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
When anyone mentions the film Speed, without a doubt, the first and only thing that pops to mind is the bus jump. That and adorable Bullocks. Let’s face it. While there are plenty of other solid sequences that deserve a second look, it is this now legendary cinematic moment where conversations about Speed begin and ends. And there’s a reason for it.
It starts once Jack is on the bus and instructs Annie, who is now pretty much stuck behind the wheel, to head for the as-then-unopened 105 Freeway, under construction and traffic-free. Coordinating with SWAT leader Lt. “Mac” McMahon (Joe Morton), who, with a team, is riding behind them, flanked by dozens of patrol cars, they figure with the open stretch of road, they can make a plan to hopefully get everyone off the bus and find the bomber. Best laid plans they say …
Problem is though, the road isn’t finished, and they are heading straight for a raised part of the highway that is on the map but not complete, meaning a gap of about 50 feet lies just a few miles away and there is no room to turn the bus around at the speed they must maintain. My favorite line in the movie comes when Mac learns of the blunder and in a moment of frustration that is both realistic and funny, he tells everyone, “You’re fired. Everybody’s f*cking fired.” I love that bit. You should, too.
So what to do? A few ideas are bandied about, but while that’s happening, Jack is looking straight down the road, ignoring the chatter, and a thought occurs, one that seems ridiculously contrary to the pressing need to somehow stop the bus and save the passengers. “Floor it,” he says. What? That’s Annie’s reaction as well. He’s counting on the interchange to be raised enough so that the bus might get some lift on the end and make the span safely. Makes sense. Not really. Naturally, the passengers panic. Cue the tense music.
Here’s where Speed earns its reputation and serves as reason why the movie is as good as it is. The jump is the thing of course, but what de Bont does is play it like a slow burn, pacing it just so, letting it sink in. He’s not about to get us over that gap fast. This is about the hook and he’s going to keep us on the line as long as he can. After Mac delivers the bad news, the camera shifts to the inside of the bus, where we become one of the frightened few, and the score (by Mark Mancina) begins to stir, a few sporadic strings that keep beat like a quickening pulse. Ba-da-da-bum-bum. Ba-da-da-bum-bum. It’s subtle, but its gripping, and like a switch, we’re tuned in and buckled up.
As Annie takes to her role, stepping on the gas, Jack moves about the cabin, prepping the passengers, trying to get them into some kind of quasi crash position. He’s calm, confident, authoritative. We’re glued to his presence and feel somehow safe. This is Reeves at his best. Controlled, iron-jawed. He’s wholly convincing. We tend to forget how good an actor he is in the right part. This is the right part.
The music picks up and through the front window of the bus, we see the police abandon their escort as the incline lies dead ahead. It’s suddenly real. Very real. The camera zooms ahead and for the first time, we see the gap and with a shudder realize, okay, yeah, fifty feet is big. Real big. de Bont added a CGI flock of white birds in post to draw our eyes right to the gap and it’s a master stroke.
The bus races ahead, hitting the incline as Jack urges it forward. “Come on!” he grunts as Annie pushes the accelerator as far down as she can. Mac and the other can only watch now in agony as Bus 2525 heads for what seem like certain destruction. With everyone’s head’s down, and Jack shielding Annie, they hit the gap at 70 miles per hour and take flight.
The jump is not about the bus.
More than three minutes (an eternity in movie story time) pass from the time we learn about the gap to the moment it reaches the edge and while the leap is both a stunning practical effect and one that nearly breaks our suspension of disbelief, it is the time just before it goes airborne that has the greatest effect. That’s because the filmmakers do something only the best in the genre do right, they tend to the characters. The jump is not about the bus or the stunt, it’s about the people riding in it, and even though we are taken by the great visual imagery, it works because we are invested in the characters. From Morton’s sensational portrayal as Mac outside the bus, who genuinely has us believing he bears great responsibility for Jack and his actions to both Reeves and Bullocks inside who, to this point in the story are feeling some sparks, have us mesmerized with their character’s back-and-forth. Why? Because this is the moment when Annie takes to trusting Jack, and trust him fully with her life. It’s incredibly significant.
In fact, it’s what this jump is all about. It’s the visual representation of the metaphorical leap of faith that Annie (and the audience) make in following Jack, a choice that forces her to literally accept his word. This is why she calls his name a moment before the jump, and why she doesn’t steer away or slow down. Annie committed herself to the bus once she sat in the seat, but now she commits herself to Jack. It’s no wonder they end up in each other’s arms. The jump is the thing.
Speed is a flawed but remarkable film that still packs big punch. While its filled with some truly great moments of action, it’s really about the people and succeeds because they are who we remember most about the experience, despite one great moment on a stretch of open road that lies unfinished. You’re all fired.