Athough it hits any number of gaping credibility potholes on its careening journey around Los Angeles, “Speed” delivers the goods as a non-stop actioner that scarcely pauses to take a breath. While highly derivative and mechanical in planning and execution, this high-octane thrillathon boasts more twists, turns and obstacles than the most hazardous video arcade road raceway, and provides the kind of mind-boggling stunts and staggering destruction that makes for strong domestic B.O. and even bigger returns overseas.
Drawing upon any number of previous perilous vehicle pix, including “Runaway Train,””The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” “Juggernaut” and the Japanese “Bullet Train” (not to mention the ill-fated “The Big Bus”), with quite a bit of Fox’s own “Die Hard” thrown in for good measure, this roller-coaster ride across city streets and freeways carries with it a couple of commercial question marks. Most notably, the sheer manipulativeness and familiarity of the format could turn some viewers against it, and Keanu Reeves as a heroic leading man is an untested concept. But pic’s straightforward success as a summer popcorn movie should keep it on a commercial tear for some time.
Story by debuting screenwriter Graham Yost actually offers three disaster pictures rolled into one: 23-minute curtain raiser, which resembles a “Die Hard” offshoot, features passengers in a high-rise elevator being terrorized; 67-minute main action is set on board a bus that’s rigged to blow up if it slows to under 50 mph; and 25-minute climax features the film debut of L.A.’s still-under-construction subway. Whatever the means of transportation, Yost has written a stuntman’s delight.
No time is wasted on exposition or character grounding, as pic opens with an obviously demented Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) stabbing a security guard in the ear and imperiling a long-drop elevator with a powerful charge of dynamite. Demanding a large bundle of cash if the passengers are to be spared, the baddie is done in by the fearless aerialist maneuvers of LAPD SWAT daredevil Jack Traven (Reeves) and his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels). It appears that Payne is hoist on his own explosive petard.
Appearances are deceiving, however, as Payne is not dead. In fact he soon announces to his nemesis, Jack, that he’s wired a Santa Monica bus so that once it hits 50 on the freeway, it will blow sky-high if its speed descends below that level. The implausibilities set in at once, as it would be interesting to learn of the last rush hour morning when traffic was light enough to allow for an unimpeded cruise at 50 from the beach to downtown.
If you can get by that one, however, things improve. With Jack on board the roaring vehicle, which is populated with the usual assortment of mixed humanity — a few blacks, a hotheaded Latino alien fearful of being arrested who shoots the driver, an annoying tourist, and so on — the police manage to guide the bus to an empty freeway so it can maintain its fast pace. Replacing the injured man behind the wheel is the feisty Annie (Sandra Bullock), who at least is qualified for the job since her license was recently revoked for speeding.
Under the fierce pressure, and with the help of Harry back at h.q., Jack keeps trying to figure out how to disarm the bomb, lowering himself under the bus in one particularly harrowing sequence to take a close look as the pavement practically scrapes his back. There are also any number of momentary emergencies to deal with, including disputes among the passengers and the death of one woman who disobeys Payne’s order that no one leave the bus.
Film’s hallmark stunt — which will have audiences everywhere oohing and aahing — has the huge bus building up a big head of steam so that it can bridge a 50-foot gap in a freeway overpass. From there, bus heads for the airport, where it’s free to circle the runways until Jack and the other cops on the scene cleverly figure out how to save the day.
But that’s not all, as Payne is able to kidnap Annie and, rather implausibly, take her for a ride on the exceedingly short subway run, where he and Jack enact a final, fatal duel. Such is Yost’s taste for setting action on board means of transport that, if Universal ever decides to resurrect the “Airport” series, they need look no further.
First-time helmer Jan De Bont, the ace lenser of most of Paul Verhoeven’s films as well as “Die Hard” and numerous other large-scale pix, handles the action with great nimbleness and dexterity; film can hardly be faulted for its visual presentation of very complex action. All tech aspects, from stunts and special effects to editing and locations, are pro without seeming too heavy or needlessly expensive.
As the action hero, Reeves shows no more expressive range than he has in the past, but he is appealingly and surprisingly forceful and commanding in the sort of role he’s never tackled before, and there’s little doubt that this will bring him new audience identification and open up a new assortment of parts for him.
A prime disappointment, however, is Hopper, who has done this loony maniac routine before, but much more memorably, in “Blue Velvet” for example. For whatever reason, he brings no new wrinkles or nuances to this willfully evil character, which much more effectively might have been enacted by a veteran actor cast against type, a la Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” or by a relative unknown, such as Alan Rickman in “Die Hard.”