“The Whim Of A Madman” (#65)

keanu-reeves-speed.jpgCinematographer-turned-director Jan De Bont never met a mode of transportation he didn’t want to blow up, and it all started with Speed (1994), the action-thriller that whittled Keanu Reeves into the wooden king of turn-your-brain-off blockbusters (see also: the Matrix and John Wick franchises). This high-concept hit has one of the most iconic movie plots of all time, with madman Dennis Hopper planting a bomb on a city bus that will go boom if the odometer falls under 50 MPH. Fortunately, a very plucky Sandra Bullock is on hand to help careen through Los Angeles’ notorious rush hour traffic and quip some snappy one-liners in her star-making role.

And if all those elevators, buses, and subway cars make you claustrophobic, you’re in luck! We’ve also booked a honeymoon suite aboard Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997), De Bont’s Caribbean-set sequel that finds Sandra Bullock and Almost Keanu taken hostage on a cruise ship by yet another disgruntled psycho. (After a half-dozen mai tais, you’ll swear it’s Titanic!)

So join us as your favorite hotshots take a pop quiz that asks just one question — do the Speed movies still go all the way, or would we rather hit the brakes?

Listen to the podcast on iTunes.speed-sandra-bullock-driving-bus

June 10, 1994

Budget: $30 million
Opening Weekend: $14.5 million
Domestic Gross: $121.2 million
Worldwide Gross: $350.4 million
Metacritic: 78, Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

I can’t think of a high concept that’s any higher than Speed‘s. There’s a bomb on a bus, and it’ll explode if the bus goes under 50 miles per hour! You can’t stop, you can’t get off, and oops! The driver’s just been shot. It’s very 90s — a bit too bombastic and knowing to be made at any point beforehand, and, sadly, too original to be made today.

Die Hard came out in 1988, just six years before this, certainly setting the table for it. Especially considering Jan De Bont was the director of photography, shooting the City of Angels (and terrorists) at sunset beautifully. Die Hard and Speed definitely share a vision of everyday, sun-drenched Los Angeles. Speed wouldn’t exist without Die Hard, another story of a cop in the wrong/right place at the wrong/right time. Die Hard has a stronger emotional hook, and a story structure that’s more satisfying. But Speed is, dare I say, more intimate. Both John McClane and Jack Traven are trying to save hostages from a ruthless terrorist — “the whim of a madman” — but McClane’s involvement is largely due to his wife, and he spends most of the movie isolated from the other characters. And aside from Ellis and Takagi, who we get to know for plot reasons, we don’t know any hostages besides Holly.keanu-reeves-glenn-plummer-speedIn Speed, on the other hand, Jack doesn’t know anyone on that bus. He’s motivated purely by heroism, and puts himself in danger (rather than just finding himself in the middle of it, as McClane is so good at throughout the series). As such, he spends a lot of time in close quarters with the hostages, and we come to know several of them. It results in a different kind of movie. McClane spends his Christmas Eve hostage situation picking off bad guys one by one. He’s committing acts of extreme violence, albeit for a pretty good reason. Traven, meanwhile, sacrifices his safety with no personal stakes involved, spending his time trying to save people rather than kill them.  Strangely enough, Die Hard is a movie that could still be made today (and was knocked off quite recently, with Skyscraper). It’s international terrorist plot would still work in 2019. But Speed‘s story would be too “low stakes,” with “only” about 20 people in jeopardy through most of the movie. The bus would need to be carrying a nuclear warhead or something, and the action might need to move to Shanghai for act three.

That is, perhaps, why revisiting Speed is such a treat. In most ways, Die Hard is a stronger film, but Speed is a rarer one. Die Hard has been copied many times, but no one ever managed to recapture the economy or efficiency of Speed. (Not even Jan De Bont in his own sequel, but more on that later.) Speed is pure plot, and pure adrenaline. It also has one of the most memorable, most effective, and most propulsive action movie scores of all time, courtesy of Mark Mancina. Unlike a lot of films set in the City of Angels, Speed also captures the look and feel of Los Angeles. The streets and freeways feel real (because they are), and the stunts are incredible.speed-dennis-hopperOn the one hand, I’m a little baffled by my co-host’s reaction to Speed, because it is very much the movie it is trying to be, and most audiences and critics enjoy it. It usually pops up in any list of the best 90s action movies, with the caveat that “best” is synonymous with “most entertaining.” My co-hosts were both confused by simple plot points, many of which are spelled out blatantly in the script — even when I was fifteen, I never had any trouble — it’s one of the most straight-forward movies ever made. Throughout most of the episode, I felt like I was trying desperately to communicate with foreigners who didn’t speak “action movie.”

But on the other hand? Whatever! I concede that there’s very little character development and pretty much zero subtext in any given moment. It works for me because I like the premise, and I enjoy the execution moment by moment. Joss Whedon’s (uncredited) one-liners make me smile, and so do the wry Jeff Daniels, the airy Sandra Bullock, and the oh-so-hammy Dennis Hopper. There’s nothing more to it than a good time, and you can’t persuade anyone into enjoying a movie. Nobody ever tried to argue that Speed is plausible — it’s borderline preposterous, though not totally insane. Like all action movies, it requires a suspension of disbelief that I am more than happy to give it. All movies require that — some, much more than others — and it’s interesting, the ways we end up doling out or denying these suspensions on a movie by movie basis. I find the plots of Gremlins and The Addams Family and The Birdcage insufferably dumb, and that sours my enjoyment of those movies. But if my time on the podcast has taught me anything, it’s that we all have a certain kind of dumb we embrace. And “bomb on a bus” dumb” is definitely a style of dumb I can embrace.

That’s a nice lead-in to Speed 2: Cruise Control, don’t you think?speed-2-cruise-control-willem-dafoe-sandra-bullock

June 13, 1997

Budget: $110-160 million
Opening Weekend: $16.2 million
Domestic Gross: $48.6 million
Worldwide Gross: $164.5 million
Metacritic: 23, Rotten Tomatoes: 4%

Let’s start here — I don’t think this is a good movie, by any means, but I don’t think it’s bad enough to earn its notorious reputation. (It beat Batman & Robin at the Razzies? That’s insane!) Speed 2: Cruise Control would have been 200% better if Keanu Reeves had signed on, because the script’s inelegant replacement of him just inserts Jason Patric as Alex Shaw, a carbon copy of Speed‘s Jack Traven, and hopes audiences won’t notice. I would’ve been down for a cute rom-com subplot with hotshot cop Jack Traven getting bashful about settling down, because Annie and Jack had solid chemistry despite the intense circumstances of their first “date.” (By the standards required for an action movie, that is.) It doesn’t really work with an all-new character, though, through no fault of Jason Patric. He’s a better actor than Keanu Reeves, but somehow, that works against him in a movie that requires hotshot machismo and little else. Reeves is believably gung-ho about death defying situations, because he comes across as a bit dense. Jason Patric seems like he’d be able to outwit this film’s diabolical maniac. But there’s not a lot of outwitting here — or any witting whatsoever.

The script’s biggest sin is giving Speed‘s breakout star, Sandra Bullock, so little to do. She brings her “A” game to some corny dialogue, but once the action starts, she’s mostly just a damsel in distress. That might’ve been okay if she weren’t the only major character from Speed returning for this film — but the whole point of a sequel is to spend time with characters we liked from the first go-round. Instead, we’re stuck with Alex Shaw, who is described as a daredevil but acts like he’s been cast in While You Were Sleeping instead. Wouldn’t it have been more fun to give Annie a boyfriend who is the polar opposite of Jack, and then let her handle the action this time around? I don’t know that I really want Annie kicking ass and taking names, but she could have some insight into Geiger’s master plan, and how to stop him, given that she’s all-too-familiar with the type. By 1997, Sandra Bullock was a huge star, and it feels wrong to make her such a foil in the movie she’s headlining, especially when her co-star is very much not an established leading man.speed-2-jason-patric-shirtlessOkay, fine. Maybe Speed 2: Cruise Control is bad, all things considered. But it’s the kind of bad where the villain puts leeches on himself in a bathtub and makes crazy Willem Dafoe googly eyes because he is, in fact, Willem Dafoe. (Kudos to the casting people, at least, for finding the only actor who can out-ham Dennis Hopper as a mad bomber.) De Bont infamously got in over his head with this film’s out-of-control budget and a waterlogged shoot (always problematic — but they never learn, do they?). You can tell he’s struggling in several action scenes, which feel like key shots are missing. But I do dearly love this film’s finale, with a cruise ship scraping up against an oil tanker before careening through a Caribbean island. If Speed 2 is ever revived on the big screen, I am there for that spectacle.

The one interesting tidbit I found to chew on in the Speed films, thematically, is the white male outrage driving both villains. Both Payne and Geiger are pissed because they lost their jobs — Payne because he injured his hand on the job, and Geiger because he got cancer. Neither Speed nor Speed 2 offers an in-depth probing of the frustrated American working class psyche, but these villains did remind me of our nation’s increasingly marginalized blue collar workers. Payne’s a cop, and Geiger is a software engineer, so neither is really blue collar, but they have the same gripes we hear now from coal miners. They were made redundant, hailing from a generation that actually trusted the their employers to take care of them. (I don’t think that’s a problem for anyone under 50 now.) If either Speed movie took place today, Payne and Geiger might be too busy retweeting neo-Nazi rhetoric to plan their elaborate hijackings, and Annie could have just had a nice bus ride to work, and a perfectly lovely cruise. I like that the Speed villains are not the typical international terrorists we see from most other action movies.

I owned two VHS copies of Speed — full-screen, then widescreen — and Speed 2: Cruise Control eventually joined my prized widescreen VHS collection, too. I also owned the sunny reggae soundtrack to Speed 2, exactly the sort of music you’d expect to hear aboard a cruise ship. Some of my fondest formative home viewing memories are of these movies, and to this day, I’ve still never gone over 50 miles per hour in Los Angeles. Speed 2 was the beginning of the end for Jan De Bont, a promising action director after the success of Speed and Twister, who went on to make a couple more duds, The Haunting and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life. De Bont has a reputation for nearly killing his actors with stunt work, so perhaps it’s for the best that no more stars are subjected to, well, “the whim of a madman,” as Howard Payne would put it.

Roger Ebert summed up my feelings in his singularly positive review of Speed 2: “Movies like this embrace goofiness with an almost sensual pleasure. And so, on a warm summer evening, do I.”



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.