[box cover]

Speed: Five Star Collection

Fox Home Video

Starring Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper,
Jeff Daniels, Joe Morton, Alan Ruck,
and Glenn Plummer

Written by Graham Yost
Directed by Jan De Bont


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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    


"'Speed' is the ultimate American movie: The answer to every problem is to go faster."

— Jackson DeGovia, Speed's production designer,
writing in the DVD's production-design notes

"These characters are one-dimensional at best.... There are premise-first movies and character-first movies.... This is a premise-first movie."

Speed Screenwriter Graham Yost, cracking wise
about the film on one of the DVD's commentary tracks


I. Introduction.

Speed is still clever. It's just not as smart as I remembered.

To be sure, cinematographer Jan De Bont's 1994 directorial debut is a cracking good thrill-ride. The "premise-first" tale — about an out-of-control, bomb-addled bus — is masterfully paced and brightly sketched and agreeably performed. It serves as a veritable textbook on how to shoot and edit action sequences. It made a star of Sandra Bullock and paved the way for Keanu Reeves to star in The Matrix. It's so thunderously loud and so gleefully destructive, you'd swear George Miller was cackling behind the camera. Speed is, in short, a minor masterpiece of popcorn-flick design — and one that cemented the "siege film"'s importance as a Hollywood genre in the late-'80s and '90s.

But doth masterful design a classic make?

Viewed from a distance of eight years, Speed's high-concept is so high, you want to send it in for rehab. By which I mean that "concept is king" in Speed to the degree that it dispenses with logic and character and thus fails to reward repeat viewings — at least to the degree that its direct ancestor Die Hard rewards repeat viewings. The humor also seems, in retrospect, a little forced.

I was surprised and saddened to discover all the above. My recollections of Speed are extremely fond, and I actively campaigned to review Fox's new "Five Star," two-disc edition of the film (which, BTW, is informative, lean and mean; skip ahead to Section V. for a full extras breakdown). And mind you, I'm not trying to knock Speed's fun factor; its sheer propulsiveness quite literally rolls over its sheer stupidity most of the time. But.


II. So what's the story again?

L.A. bomb-squad cops Jack Traven (Keanu) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels, whom I'd completely forgotten was in the movie) stop a bomber/extortionist (Dennis Hopper) from killing an elevator-ful of yuppies. Hopper escapes, faking his death — only to turn up later with an even nastier extortion bid: He's wired a bomb to a bus, which will explode if the bus moves slower than 50 mph.

All together now: "A bus? 50 mph? Los Angeles? Bollocks!"

Following some virtuoso driving, Jack Traven commandeers the bus and tries to figure out how to defuse a rolling hostage crisis. Sparks fly between him and Annie (Sandra Bullock) — the twentysomething cutie-patootie forced to take the wheel after the driver is shot.

What follows is essentially an explosive tour of L.A.'s people-moving infrastructure: Cars, buses, planes and subways become playgrounds of mayhem — with acceleration and/or immolation presenting themselves as handy solutions every time. (The only major vehicles left unmolested are water-ski boats and the Disneyland monorail — at least one of which gets its turn in the bloated, tension-free sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control.)


III. How does Speed compare to Die Hard?

The films share key personnel. De Bont was, of course, Die Hard's cinematographer; Jackson DeGovia production-designed both films. (This is most obvious during Speed's opening elevator sequence, which contains direct visual references to Die Hard; both films even concentrate their action around the 32nd floor). Both movies star unproven actors who seemed laughably miscast when the films were announced — and who went on to become major, bankable action stars. And both films feature career-defining work by directors (De Bont, John McTiernan) whose careers spectacularly went off the rails — both in stand-alone efforts (The Haunting, Last Action Hero) and in sequels to their own best movies (Speed 2, Die Hard: With a Vengeance).

In terms of story, it goes without saying that Speed is sprung directly from Die Hard's loins. Both "siege films" feature blue-collar heroes who get the snot beat out of them, weirdly spoken villains, and large, broadly sketched supporting casts — all thrust into an escalating hostage drama utilizing confined spaces and drawing equally from action- and disaster-film tropes.

But there are crucial differences. For one thing, Die Hard's characters are generously scripted and defined — with the movie's opening 18 minutes devoted to establishing character and locale. Bruce Willis' middle-aged McClane faces his hostage crisis with a generous set of emotional baggage, a smart mouth, and no shoes. Not so in Speed: The vehicles are De Bont's real stars. (He even refers to the bus as a "character," and rightly so, in his commentary track.) Keanu Reeves' Jack Traven is lean, young, optimistic, ill-spoken, buzz-cut, laden with tools, and Nautilus-sculpted almost to the point of abstraction — and for the love of God, just before the movie's first bus explosion, he's ordering a latte. (Jack and the equally tanned, toned and adorable Annie are such progressive Gen-X Democrats that immediately after they slide out from under the bus, I always half-expect them to break out in healthy bouts of sex and hackey-sack.)

Speed also takes a vastly more Democratic view of bureaucracy and crisis-management. Whereas John McClane is utterly alone, openly defying the SWAT team sent in to manage Die Hard's crisis, Jack Traven is the SWAT team. In Speed, our heroes readily avail themselves of the trappings of public transit and public service as they try to solve problems. It's the sort of movie that quells a hostage crisis by calling the police and going to the airport.

Finally — and most crucially — unlike Die Hard, Speed relies too heavily on thrills and editing to cover up its massive logic flaws. As a result, those flaws become all too apparent on repeat viewings — particularly repeat viewings eight years down the line. (As screenwriter Graham Yost admits in his commentary track: "We spent a month papering over every plot hole, and then in the last week we ripped them all off.")


IV. At the risk of nitpicking, would you care to name a few of those logic flaws?

Absolutely:


I could go on and on, but you get the idea.


V. The Needlessly Granular Extra-Features Deconstruction.

I'm happy to report that the Speed: Five Star Collection's special features are free of the sort of gimmicky flab that gives DVD "Special Editions" a bad name; there's nary a time-wasting menu animation or "interactive editing workshop" or painfully hidden Easter egg in the whole lot. Hurrah!

Disc One — in addition to sporting the always-welcome "THX Optimizer" — features two full-length commentary tracks:



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