Jan de Bont's high concept Die Hard knock-off exemplifies the allure of 90's terrorism mystique in the pre-9/11 world. Charming baddies battling broken-down everyman heroes with high stakes high pressure, high octane Bruckheimer-branded action.
Speed (1994) dir. Jan de Bont
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels, Dennis Hopper
By Alan Bacchus
"Speed" would not made if not for 'Die Hard', a film which lingered over every terrorist-hostage movie for years. The script was probably offered to John McTiernan first before it was give up to Die Hard’s DOP Jan De Bont. This scenario is an even higher concept, a bomb placed on a bus that blows up if it goes less than 50mph. That’s quite a narrative and production hurdle for the filmmakers to realize into a two hour action film.
It’s a bit of cheat though because we spend less than an hour on the bus and even during this time de Bont often cuts back to scenes of the police's search for the bomber. But considering there’s only so much that can realistically be done on a bus and stay within the realm of plausibility an hour of action is quite an achievement.
Structurally the film only exists as one-hour film. The opening elevator sequence is a disaster movie set-up with the heroes rescuing innocent bystanders from an elevator shaft. The film doesn't get rolling until, of course, we get to the bus and the contrivance of keeping Sandra Bullock around the picture for the third act is a hamfisted and unnecessary complication. But it’s part of De Bont’s Spielberg/Indy Jones school of jeopardy and conflict.
The film unfortunately suffers from Jan De Bont’s inability to deal with the humour and handle Graham Yost’s stock supporting characters. Though Reeves, Bullock are marvellous everyone else on the bus is unbearably annoying.
Bullock is highly addictive. Her first lead role, and she embellishes all the innate spunk and girl-next-door cuteness sparkle in her personality. Dennis Hopper plays Dennis Hopper with a typical madman crazy - Frank Booth light - passable as an action baddie but without much memorable charisma. And Keanu is more than sufferable as the cocky, over confident and highly reckless cop hero.
All other action cinema technical elements add the necessary gloss. De Bont, as a former (and expert) DOP shoots a beautiful film. Exterior locations glow in the beautiful golden Los Angeles sunshine. De Bont’s usual anamorphic lenses open up the frame maximizing the big screen and softening the background thus isolating the characters in focus in the foreground. And Mark Mancini's score is so memorable, having not seen the film in 15 years, it was instantly recognizable.
It’s not one of best movies in the past 17 years, and it’s not even one of the best action movies in the past 17 years, but for sheer cinema audacity and Hollywood high concept few pictures have been realized more effectively.