Speed: Five Star Collection
Fox Home Video
Starring Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper,
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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
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?
- How does a guy who's missing a thumb build complex bombs and install them on buses and elevators?
- Hopper's villain dupes the cops into thinking he's dead by staging an off-camera explosion. Um, wouldn't the lack of scattered body parts (or at least a fine, blood-red cologne residue) lead the cops to conclude that the bad guy might still be alive?
- Why does Jack need to knock the driver's-side door off a convertible in order to jump onto a moving bus?
- A bus? 50 mph? Los Angeles? Bollocks!
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:
- The first yack-track is by director Jan De Bont and while Mr. De Bont seems like a genteel enough fellow, his commentary is, I'm sorry to report, stupefyingly obvious and butter-knife dull. He thinks all the little action-movie bon mots uttered by the heroes and villains are "brilliant." He modestly admits not having all the answers and relying on his crew. He calls Jeff Daniels "really underrated." And he does that annoying commentary-track thing where he simply relates what you're already seeing onscreen, without offering any sort of analysis or backstory saying, for example, "That's Keanu" or "This is of course a set piece" or "This is downtown L.A." or "As you can see, in this whole chase sequence, the camera's always moving." All that said, there are some nice bits of technical trivia here (Hitting a string of cars with a bus, he says, is "harder than you think it is") and rhapsodizes in his soft-spoken way about the genius of Kubrick.
- Perhaps sensing that they had a royal snore-fest on their hands, the DVD's producers commissioned a second, vastly more entertaining commentary track this one featuring screenwriter Graham Yost and producer Mark Gordon, who are just obnoxious and snarky as hell. Yost and Gordon are obviously students of the Singer/McQuarrie commentary school: Jokes are cracked and editing errors are revealed and interesting cameos and details and backstories are shamelessly unveiled. However, unlike Singer/McQuarrie, Yost/Gordon don't keep a flame of reverence burning for the movie that made them Hollywood big shots and so they are really rather mean to Speed when you add up their remarks. Yost in particular is a bundle of sarcasm, making fun even of the opening-credits font choices and admitting later that he's really proudest of his work on From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers and all but disavowing the gratuitously violent fare he's written for such films as Broken Arrow.
- Among the other Yost/Gordon highlights: They reveal that Jeff Daniels thought the movie would stink during filming (and tell us that Daniels' character was going to end up as the ultimate villain in an earlier draft). They talk about teaching Jan De Bont to learn to "sell himself" better during pitch meetings. They reveal that Ellen DeGeneres was up for Bullock's role at one point, and that the character was originally going to be a driver's-ed teacher (Yost: "I still think she would have been really funny. There wouldn't have been a lot of chemistry, but...."). They talk bluntly about scenes they dislike and logic flaws that bother them, with Yost at one point acidly saying, "This is the most realistic movie ever made!" They say a location scout had the idea of taking the bus onto an airport runway it originally ended up circling Dodger Stadium and their account contradicts De Bont's taking credit for the idea on his commentary. They rip on Billy Idol's final-credits song. They reveal that all the bomb-squad chatter is completely made up (Gordon: "Some writers actually do research." Yost: "What's the point?") And Yost has harsh words for the final subway sequence declaring pointedly that the movie ends when the bus explodes. (Gordon, for his part, thinks the final sequence is too short to do any real harm to the film's structure.)
Disc Two's main menu screens (and Disc One's menu screens, for that matter) are designed to evoke Dennis Hopper's lair in the movie only now, instead of local newscasts and whatnot showing on the various TVs strewn Slacker-style about the room, all the monitors show bits of behind-the-scenes Speed footage and other meta-what-have-you. It's needlessly decadent, like a DVD menu for an acclaimed serial-killer movie.
There are six menus to choose from. The first, "Action : Sequences," contains two featurettes on the film's stunts and two interactive time-wasters:
- There's a semi-fascinating 9:37 featurette on the film's wildly unrealistic, 109-foot "Bus Jump". The doc shows driver Jophery Brown talking beforehand with stunt coordinator Gary Hymes, intercut with talking-head chats that describe the stunt's 80-ton ramp and the injury-minimizing suspension system that allowed the driver to gyroscopically hover inside the bus as it flew through the air and smashed onto the tarmac. Highlights: The stunt coordinator telling everyone during a "safety meeting" where to leap if the gag goes horribly, horribly wrong; and Jan De Bont looking supremely pissed as the bus flies slightly out of his camera's framing.
- "Metrorail Crash" (6:18) is bit duller revealing that the climactic fight atop the subway train utilized rear projection (No way!) and detailing the "lockup problems" (i.e., the problems clearing the street of tourists) that producers faced as they tried to land a "runaway train" (actually a modified bus, piloted once again by cucumber-cool Jophery Brown) on Hollywood Boulevard.
- Next we find "Multi-Stream Storyboards" in which the viewer can angle between Giacomo Ghiazza's storyboards and storyboard/shot comparisons of "Bomb on Bus," "Bus Jump," and "Metrorail Fight and Crash." There are also storyboards here for an unfilmed "Baker Sequence" in which an "Officer Baker" makes a "daring but ill-fated rescue attempt" an ambitious bit of business in which a cop is trying to lower onto the bus from a chopper and barely misses a overpass railing only to be well and thoroughly creamed by a passing glass truck. It's a ludicrous, cool-looking gag that will, I promise you, turn up one day in another Hollywood action film.
- Finally, there are "Multi-Angle Stunts," which allow you to toggle between different camera setups on the film's major stunts "Bus Jump," "Cargo Jet Explosion," "Jack vs. Payne," and "Metrorail Crash." (The coolest feature here is that you can watch the sequences in "composite" mode viewing as many as eight camera angles simultaneously. It's surprisingly educational and quite possibly required viewing for an aspiring action director.)
The next main extras menu is "Inside : Speed," and it contains three featurettes "On Location," (7:21) "Stunts," (12:08) and "Visual Effects" (9:14). Hate your eyeballs? There's also 267 screens worth of "Original Screenplay," plus a 39-page "Production Design" essay by Jackson DeGovia with relevant illustrations.
DeGovia's design essay is pretty geeky and over-detailed and cool, BTW, and even a bit poetic at times containing such passages as:
"The [bus] numbers were done in a 1930s period serif font evocative of simpler times.... This was especially important in the many aerial shots, usually a dull angle, since the fat rounded typeface reinforced the homely charm of this rugged workhorse on the cusp of obsolescence."
"This [acceleration] theme is expressed with a thread of design irony running through 'Speed.' At every opportunity we displayed the standard iconography of the safety industry, that is, black and yellow stripes, fluorescent orange and white stripes, and checker patterns, fluorescent orange safety fences, traffic cones, lane markers, signs, and slogans. These conventional, official warnings of danger ahead are always ignored, brushed aside, or destroyed outright; when they show up, you know something really bad or really neat is about to happen." [This is followed by an obsessive detailing over four pages of all the safety iconography in the film, with glee expressed at its destruction.]
Back to the main extras menu. Now we find an "Interview : Archive" featuring chapter-searchable, nearly raw footage from 1994 EPK chats with Keanu Reeves (5:56), Sandra Bullock (9:27), Jeff Daniels (6:48), Dennis Hopper (4:41) and Jan De Bont (4:22). The 1994 chats are sort of fascinatingly raw; of special interest is Bullock's incredibly convoluted one-take attempt to explain the film's plot, plus her take on what the sequel should be called ("Annie Get Your Gun") and her dead-on aim with a dart gun.
Moving, along, there's a menu of "Extended : Scenes" that's so slight, it's playable as a single 11:09 stream and most of the footage is in the final film. (As the menu rather indelicately spins it: "Thanks to a tight script, shrewd production planning and deft direction, SPEED has very little in the way of deleted footage." I believe "Tight," "Shrewd" and "Deft" were the titles of Michael Jackson's last three albums, weren't they?) Here's the breakdown:
- "Jack Shoots Payne in the Neck" (:41) features exactly that a bit in which Keanu shoots Hopper in the, um, neck right after shooting Daniels in the leg. The neck-injury squib looks sort of horrid and fatal and fake, BTW, which may be why they cut it;
- "Payne Lives / Cops Party" (4:56) features a slightly longer (and decidedly less dramatic) introduction of Hopper watching Reeves receive his reward followed by what appear to be extra shots of cops dancing badly and quaffing beers. There's also a bit where Jeff Daniels grabs a woman and drunkenly demands that she sit on his lap (ick!), plus shots of Keanu and Joe Morton trading flat patter during their "45th round" at the bar;
- "Annie's Job" (1:11) features Annie talking with the soon-to-explode neurotic Helen, with Annie revealing that she's a graphic designer for "Uncle Salty's Seafood Hut." Really. Anyway....
- "After Helen's Death" (3:14) features a little too much hugging and crying among the overwrought passengers after that neurotic explodes and gets yanked under the bus plus a bit more chatting with Keanu and a weeping Sandra that ends with Sandra saying, rather suddenly, "Did they teach you to talk nice to ... [laughs through her tears] crying hostages in cop school or something?" and Keanu responding, "No, they mostly teach you how to tie square knots and build fire, stuff like that." Adorable.
- And finally, "Ray's Crime" (1:07) features a conversation between the two most stereotypical passenger/hostages the frat-boy white guy and Ray, the Mexican-American who pulls a gun. The white guy asks Ray what crime led him to pull a weapon on Jack; after some prodding, Ray replies that he stole a gun from his cousin. Why? "For home protection." Pathos! Irony! Social commentary! The mind reels!
Finally, we find an "Image Gallery" (sporting something like 530-odd images, if my count's correct) divided into 18 sub-chapters including such un-appetizing categories as "Streets of Los Angeles," "Camera & Lighting Rigs," and "Alan Ruck's On-Set Photos." Highlights include a good look at the elaborate bus rig; the crew standing proudly in front a burnt-out shell of an airliner (how times have changed); Jan De Bont playing with what look to be Matchbox cars on the tarmac as he plans out a shot; and various crew members regarding, Hamlet-style, the disembodied dummy head of Dennis Hopper.
Then there's a "Promotion" menu featuring the theatrical trailer, TV spots, an "HBO First Look: The Making of Speed" (24:11) hosted by Dennis Hopper, the "Speed Music Video by Billy Idol" (4:41) and, dear Lord, 18 pages of "Press Kit Production Notes."
VI. Any Easter Eggs?
I found one, but I wasn't looking that hard:
On Disc Two's main menu, click to the right of the "Action : Sequences" menu title; a bus icon will appear. Click on it to read a screen of DVD credits. Click through the three pages of credits, however, and a genuine "Easter Egg" emerges an icon replacing a scrolling arrow that leads you to an alternate scene titled "Cargo Jet Explosion: The Airline Version."
As the menu rather cheekily explains it: "SPEED's primary climax involves a bus, a cargo jet and a massive explosion. Here's a look at what the airline censors came up with to calm the nerves of sensitive passengers."
The :54 alternate scene is inadvertently hilarious to anyone who's seen the uncut film: Thanks to the miracle of clunky montage editing, the out-of-control bus instead of crashing into a plane now appears to collide with a tow rig that's ambling down an airport runway, towing nothing. The ensuing explosion takes place almost completely in window reflections and reaction shots.
Is that enough?
- Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
- DTS (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (French)
- English and Spanish subtitles
- Commentary by Director Jan De Bont
- Commentary by Screenwriter Graham Yost and Producer Mark Gordon
- Five extended scenes
- THX Optimizer
- "Bus Jump" featurette (9:37)
- "Metrorail Crash" featurette (6:18)
- "Multi-Stream Storyboards" feature
- "Multi-Angle Stunts" feature
- "On Location" featurette (7:21)
- "Stunts" featurette (12:08)
- "Visual Effects" featurette (9:14)
- Original screenplay
- "Production Design" essay by Jackson DeGovia
- "Interview Archive" featuring interview featurettes with Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels, and Jan De Bont
- Image gallery
- Theatrical trailer
- TV spots
- "HBO First Look: The Making of Speed" (24:11)
- "Speed Music Video by Billy Idol"
- Press Kit Production Notes
- Easter egg: "Cargo Jet Explosion: The Airline Version"
- Dual-DVD keep-case
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