|This movie won Oscars for Best Sound and Sound Effects Editing.||
'Speed' (R)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 10, 1994
If a movie titled "Speed" doesn't rush into your veins, spiking your eyeballs and spinning them back into your head, then what good is it?
It doesn't matter much that "Speed" is another buddy/anti-buddy movie, this time pitting Keanu Reeves as Los Angeles SWAT cop Jack Traven against Dennis Hopper as mad bomber Howard Payne; or that most of its big set pieces -- or even its basic premise -- are pilfered from earlier movies. Summer action movies are expected to be derivative and formulaic. They're also expected to be brainless, substanceless and noisy, and "Speed" hits its marks on all three of these counts too. At one point, Howard instructs Jack: "Do not attempt to grow a brain." And the filmmakers follow his advice to the letter.
What a movie like this has to be, though, is fast -- fast enough to drive every thought from your head, make you dig your fingers into the seat in front of you and hang on for dear life. A name tag like "Speed" only ups the ante. And when Jack's police car zooms over the top of a hill, soaring in from the top of the frame, you buckle your seat belt and settle in for a good ride.
Unfortunately, you needn't have bothered. Undeniably, the picture now and again supplies that edge-of-the-seat sensation; yet, by action-adventure standards, "Speed" is leaden and strangely poky. It never seems to shift into overdrive and let fly.
Not that the film has been weighed down with any unnecessary baggage. If the original design of Graham Yost's screenplay featured any subtext to the main story line, it was considered optional and stripped away. Nor does cinematographer-turned-director Jan de Bont waste time elaborating on even the most basic details of his characters' lives. In terms of story, "Speed" is just one damn thing after another. In the main event, Howard rigs a city bus with a bomb set to go off when the vehicle's speed dips below 50 mph. And because Jack had fouled up another of Howard's ransom schemes earlier in the week -- this one involving business execs on an elevator in a high-rise office building -- he's the one Howard singles out to prevent the disaster -- if he can.
Undoubtedly, what the filmmakers were aiming for here was a kind of streamlined muscularity, for the narrative to be as ripped as Reeves's new action-hero body. Some directors -- Walter Hill, to name one -- make a career out of paring character and subtext to the bone. But in de Bont's case this trait comes across as a sign of ineptitude rather than a stylistic choice. Even at what are supposed to be the film's most exhilarating moments -- like the big scene in which the bus has to leap over a section of missing highway -- his images don't seem to have any vitality, or build any momentum, and his editing rhythms don't seem to have any snap, either. Rather than lean and efficient, it just seems empty.
Between thrills, the picture falls into endless-seeming longueurs on the bus, with the camera staring blankly at the passengers -- who sit there defined only by their ethnicity -- while this white dude figures out what to do next.
What he does, mostly, is talk on the phone -- to his partner (Jeff Daniels), his superior (Joe Morgan) or his nutty adversary. But even Hopper, who's spent his career driving on the wrong side of the road, seems to keep it between the lines. Every now and then we hear his mad cackle but in this case he's literally just phoning it in, and in his overalls he looks about as threatening as the Maytag repair man.
The only performer to stand out is Sandra Bullock as Annie, who's pressed into service as an emergency bus driver. If it weren't for the smart-funny twist she gives to her lines -- they're the best in the film -- the air on that bus would have been stifling. Her main function is to represent Jack's potential squeeze, but wisecracking behind the wheel, she emerges as a slightly softer version of the Linda Hamilton-Sigourney Weaver heroines: capable, independent, but still irresistibly vulnerable.
The real sex object here, though, is Reeves, who with his brush cut and pumped-up physique is barely recognizable as the loose, eager-puppy actor from his earlier films. As Jack, he reads every line as if he really, really cared, and though he's undeniably hunky and cute as a button, he's so earnest that he has no electricity, no life. Granted, as Jack, he is a busy boy, but he plays the character as if a straight face came with the badge and the gun. Bullock is the perfect foil; she leavens his sincerity, and if audiences go for Reeves in this role, he'll have her to thank for it. The picture positions Reeves as a hip new action hero, but if he doesn't get some craziness in his soul, he could wind up as the poster boy for the Young Republicans.
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