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'Speed': Missing a Hook and Line, It's a Sinker

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 13, 1997

The original "Speed" was so milled to maximum streamline, it didn't even have a subtext. The sequel -- "Speed 2: Cruise Control" -- takes this concept further: It doesn't have a text.

What a reeking bag of nothingness! What emptiness, what vaporous vapidity! What rot, stink, and whiff of mold spore! It's like an existential prank merrily engineered by Jean-Paul Sartre in heaven.

The director, Jan De Bont, who did both the original "Speed" and last summer's brain-dead "Twister," has put together a reputation for pyrotechnic kinetics at the technical level and infantile twaddle at the emotional level. Naturally, this has made him hugely successful. But in this one he underwhelms even the lowest expectations. The kinetics aren't that good, the twaddle is off the charts and the characters seem written by monkeys on amphetamines with crayons.

At least the first "Speed" had the benefit of a premise that was both original and breathtakingly clear: a madman had wired a bus with a bomb that would explode if the bus's speed dropped below 50 mph. Consequently, as the vehicle careered through the worst traffic on the planet, the speedometer needle was like an electrode to the collective medulla oblongata of the American public; as it flirted with the red line, it kept you in oxygen debt, even if you didn't believe a second of it.

The sequel exchanges the bus in traffic for the 25,000-ton luxury steamer wending its piglike way through the trough of the Caribbean under azure skies. It looks like a skyscraper designed by Albert Speer floating on its side. That makes the title a joke: There's no illusion of speed whatsoever. It should have been called "Sloth."

The only survivor from the previous cast is poor Sandra Bullock, still named Annie, still acting like the girl with a good personality that nobody wants to date. Keanu Reeves and his offbeat charm being absent, she is teamed up this time with -- whatta coincidence! -- yet another daredevil SWAT cop, played by that refugee from the Planet of the Handsome, Dull Men: Jason Patric. His Alex is so beautiful and inert he reminds you less of Reeves than of Michelangelo's David.

The de rigueur madman here is the normally reliable Willem Dafoe, an actual actor. But given no actual character to play, Dafoe falls back on what appears to be the ammonia-inhalation school of method acting. When called upon to invent a passionate expression, he appears to imagine that he's just taken a stout whiff of the old NH3; his eyeballs and nostrils blow open to about f/1. That's it for acting.

Dafoe's character, a disgruntled former software designer for the company that designed the ship's navigational system, is that archetypal office bore, the chronic whiner, always at pains to explain why he's so right and everyone else is so wrong. ZZZZZZZZZZ. He's rigged the ship with explosives, but his prime plan is to fake the passengers and crew into abandoning the vessel by commandeering the computer system and sending false information, and then looting a jewelry cargo. This leads to numerous exciting scenes of him pounding manically at a keyboard.

He gets most of the idiots into lifeboats but a small "Poseidon Adventure"-size squad is left on board, including a couple of officers, the woman with the cleavage, the woman who is fat, the rich snooty couple with the deaf daughter and the parvenu millionaire. And, of course, the "A" kids, Alex and Annie, who immediately take charge because they've learned more about the ship in 24 hours than the professionals who run it on a daily basis.

As an action movie venue, the ship needn't have been so wretchedly wasted. In fact, in 1974, Richard Lester made the masterpiece of the ships-in-peril-on-the-sea genre in his underappreciated classic "Juggernaut" (Rent it; love it; thank me later.) But De Bont wastes an hour on drizzly rescues in the ship's dark bowels, as Patric keeps leading or pulling the unfortunate out of the water. It's really more a remake of Stallone's recent "Daylight" than any kind of sequel to "Speed."

By the second hour, De Bont finally gets to his big number: a game of ocean vessel chicken between the big cruiser and a fuel-laden tanker at anchor in St. Maarten's harbor. Watching these giant sea turtles laboriously close on each other isn't quite the thrill he thinks it is.

He does, finally, squeeze a little adrenaline out of you when he contrives to give the big ship shore leave in that quaint harbor town. It thunders ashore like Godzilla looking for the head, crunching the tinkertoy town to toothpicks. A little later, that tanker finally goes up: a very nice explosion, thank you very much.

But in all ways, shapes, forms and meanings, "Speed 2: Cruise Control" is a titanic dud. Where is that damned iceberg when you need it?

Speed 2: Cruise Control is rated PG-13 for mild violence and profanity. Dramamine optional.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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