For most of the the early 90’s, Keanu Reeves wasn’t exactly known for his action hero status. Aside from surfing bank robber flick Point Break, he was starring in films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and My Own Private Idaho – trying to shake the mantle of slacker that the popular Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and it’s sequel had hung firmly around his shoulders.
Then came Speed, the thrill ride about a bus with a bomb strapped to it, and viewers suddenly paid attention to the buff crewcut Reeves that came with it. Later, his turn in The Matrix (1999) would skyrocket his appeal even higher, but Speed was the film that finally shook the “Ted” persona off his back.
But, looking back on the film now, more than 15 years later, would we discover that Reeves deserved all the action hero acclaim, or would it turn out he just happened to stumble into a film good enough to make viewers overlook his shortcomings? In other words, was Keanu good – or just plain lucky?
By this point, nearly every action junkie on the planet has managed to watch Speed – and most will agree that it’s not Keanu’s acting that’s the highlight of this flick. While he does manage to step up on occasion, he still has those moments of wooden rigidity that his critics have been complaining about for years. They don’t occur frequently, but those brief moments have the viewer feeling sorry for Keanu – as if he is striving for something not quite yet within his reach. Still, the viewer should appreciate that Keanu – like his on-screen persona Jack – keeps on striving, despite occasionally not quite reaching his goal.
Sandra Bullock also saw her career skyrocket thanks to her role as passenger-turned-impromptu bus driver Annie in Speed. This was when she was breaking out of the romantic comedy niche to try her hand at action. Coming so soon off of her well-received role in Demolition Man (1993) (opposite action star powerhouse Sly Stallone), it really showed she could be just as interesting outside of the rom-com chick flicks. While she may have then squandered a lot of that pull by appearing in the awful sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997), viewers can overlook that as she bridges the gap between them and Reeves’ somewhat dispassionate acting.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Dennis Hopper, who quite literally phones in his performance as the villain of the picture. Not given much to work with (he’s a man with a grudge, plain and simple), he does what he can. Since the film is more focused on the attempts to foil his dastardly plans rather than on him, that doesn’t amount to much.
The storyline takes a basic concept – good cop vs. bad guy – and adds an interesting twist by adding a speed the bus can’t go under. By doing that, the filmmakers heighten the excitement of the film. Sure, the “bomb on the bus” idea creates excitement all by itself. But, by creating that threshold, the viewer is suddenly faced with watching the heroes escape from a no-win situation. Plus, this one has a time limit too, as the bus will eventually run out of gas. By putting the speed at 50, the filmmakers up the ante by creating tense situations all along the way. Instead of just fighting against time, the good guys have to fight against everyday obstacles like traffic and tight turns to keep themselves alive. All that adds up for a tense ride, despite the increasing ridiculousness of the obstacles put in the way.
One of these obstacles – the most talked about one, in fact – concerns the bus having to bridge a 50-foot gap in the road. At first, this probably seemed like a novel idea, a situation to show the good guys are fallible while at the same time creating yet another increasingly difficult obstacle for the bus and it’s passengers to overcome. However, it’s this bus leap that requires the biggest leap of faith from the viewers. Watching the bus leap at a 45 degree angle from a flat roadway will test the limits of that faith for most viewers.
Despite it’s faults, however – even the incredibly noticeable ones like the bus leap – Speed works every time you watch it. With Bullock creating a character viewers will like from the first moment she races for a bus she’s late for, Reeves providing the stoic action hero willing to put his life on the line time and time again for complete strangers, and Hopper providing the menacing bad guy lurking in the shadows, Speed is exactly what it sets out to be – a thrilling ride from start to finish.