On Speed

Speed was the film I got introduced to Keanu Reeves (Point Break, The Matrix trilogy). At this point, I thought Keanu Reeves was quite attractive, with the debut of “short hair Keanu“:


Sandra Bullock also appears (Miss Congeniality, The Blind Side). Furthermore, “98.9 percent of the dialogue” can be attributed to Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Avengers, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Avengers: Age of Ultron). According to Grantland‘s article, “The Movies of 1994: Keanu’s Magic Quasi-Buddhist Bus in ‘Speed’“:

Jan de Bont’s Speed, released 20 years ago this week, cost about $30 million to make. Some data points, for context: $30 million is how much Michael Bay says his decision to shoot in 3-D added to the rumored $195 million budget of 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. When Neill Blomkamp made 2009’s District 9 for $30 million, it was viewed as a kind of magic trick; news stories about the film invariably used the phrase “low-budget” to describe it. And if you need a more apples-to-apples comparison, consider that this spring’s Need for Speed — another vehicular-stunt showcase with no high-priced stars and minimal CGI — reportedly cost $66 million.

1994 was a transitional moment for the American action film, and not just because you could make a viable studio blockbuster for the summer-movie equivalent of Clerks money. Icons from the ’80s like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were still reliable box-office draws, but leaner years lay directly ahead for both. Their B-movie schlockcessors Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal were also sliding into self-parodic eclipse — and they were technically late-’80s stars, anyway. Almost two years into the Clinton era, the question of what an emblematically ’90s action hero might look like remained unsettled, which meant all kinds of unlikely actors got to try on the mantle. Would the future of the genre look like Meryl Streep, chiseled and biker-shortsed in The River Wild? Keenen Ivory Wayans in A Low Down Dirty Shame? A young Hilary Swank learning to be The Next Karate Kid? Charlie Sheen, playing a skydiving instructor (and self-proclaimed “flying penis”! Named “Ditch Brodie,” no less!) in Terminal Velocity? The only obvious pick-to-click was Brandon Lee, and by the time The Crow came out, he’d been dead for more than a year.

Only in this context could Keanu Reeves seem like a sure-thing action hero. By 1994, it was clear Reeves was a movie star and less clear what kind of movie star he wanted to be. In 1991 he’d made a credible action-movie debut as Johnny Utah in Point Break, but he’d also played a gay hustler in My Own Private Idaho and Ted “Theodore” Logan again, beating the Reaper at Twister in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Two subsequent period pieces — Much Ado About Nothingand Dracula — mostly revealed his now infamous lack of facility with non–San Dimas accents. And in the months before the summer ofSpeed, he’d showed up onscreen as the gentrified Mohawk Indian painter Julian Gitche in Gus Van Sant’s fascinatingly misbegottenEven Cowgirls Get the Blues and an androgynous Siddhartha Gautama in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. In interviews, he name-dropped Foucault, Nietzsche, and Camille Paglia and quoted Fugazi songs about consumerism to explain how he felt about stardom, doing all the James Franco dance steps a decade before Franco did. “Reeves appears more like a slacker poet than the next great action hero,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Melina Gerosa, upon meeting him at a lesbian coffeehouse; he showed up with a leather-bound book containing his handwritten notes on Hamlet, because of course he did.

It’s said Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise turned down the part of Jack Traven, an LAPD officer who boards a Santa Monica city bus that a madman has wired to explode if it slows down. So did Stephen Baldwin and Richard Grieco, who’d later admit to Movieline that he thought Graham Yost’s original script “sucked.” De Bont says he cast Reeves for his “innocence, sweetness and romantic quality,” which is not traditionally what you go to Cruise or Willis for; Reeves signed on only after a now-legendary uncredited rewrite by Joss Whedon transformed Traven from a wisecracking cowboy cop in the John McClane mold into a more earnest, thoughtful problem-solver caught up in an impossible situation. There are still traces in the finished movie of the Bruce Willis flick it might have been, especially at first. An elevator is in danger of falling, and someone asks if there’s anything that can stop it. Reeves — sporting a newly buff Gold’s Gym body, a buzz cut, and a light sweat-sheen — stops chewing gum long enough to quip, “Yeah — the basement.” It’s a funny line, but in the context of what Reeves does as Traven in the next 90 minutes, it rings retroactively false, a concession to the rules of the genre.

Cool guys don’t look at explosions; cool action-movie guys take command of a situation through physical force, borderline-nihilistic fearlessness, this-time-it’s-personal rage-channeling, and attitudinal one-liners. Reeves’s performance as Traven scrambles those masculine codes so thoroughly that he almost belongs in a conversation about the emergence of the female action hero, also a mid-’90s phenomenon. He exhibits toughness and bravery when required, but it’s his traditionally “feminine” qualities — his sensitivity, his compassion, his capacity for lateral thinking — that carry the day. When a confused passenger pulls a gun, Traven defuses the situation by persuading him that they’re all in this together; later, when an argument breaks out on the bus, he stops it by calmly placing his hand on one man’s shoulder instead of knocking him out. And he’s able to focus on the human factors in this crisis because of the partnership he’s forged with Sandra Bullock’s Annie, which — at least until it takes the inevitable romantic turn — is itself a subversion of the male savior/female victim dynamic traditionally asserted in movies like this one. Here it’s the woman who operates heavy machinery and the man who sees to her emotional needs. “Are you all right? Is there anything I can do?” he asks, after Annie watches the old lady get blown up after attempting to jump to freedom.

Slavoj Žižek once wrote an essay that posited the myth of Medea, the story about Keyser Söze killing his own family in The Usual Suspects, and Speed’s “shoot the hostage” scene — in which Dennis Hopper’s mad bomber takes Traven’s partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) hostage and Traven wounds Harry to take him out of the equation — as metaphorical models for radical political action rooted in total self-sacrifice. There’s something Buddhist about that concept. The scene in which Traven shoots Harry is the only time Reeves fires his gun at another person in Speed, and there’s something Buddhist about that, too, especially if you view Hopper as less the antagonist and more a symbol of Traven’s karmic predicament. “It’s based on saving these people, it’s not based on killing the bad guy,” Whedon told the Huffington Post on Tuesday. “I look to the progression to films like ‘The Matrix,’ and I think there’s the idea of the peaceful warrior germinating in [‘Speed’], and I think that’s important.”

De Bont went on to make Twister and Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life, more action movies with active, non-damsel-ish female protagonists or co-protagonists. He also made Speed 2: Cruise Control, because he was contractually obligated to do so. Reeves wasn’t, so he was free to wander off for most of the next half-decade, ping-ponging from willful weirdness (Johnny Mnemonic) to crud without the courage of its convictions (The Devil’s Advocate). Then came the Matrix movies, in which all that Buddhist subtext became the text. Reeves’s Neo and the rest of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar dressed in monkish sackcloth and ate future-gruel when they weren’t liberating humanity from illusion, and Keanu had a Cronenberg-ishly vaginal data-port in the back of his neck. It was an action movie whose lead role demanded a slacker poet, a contradiction only an actor like Reeves could resolve.

Additionally, according to The Guardian‘s “Why I’d like to be … Keanu Reeves in Speed“:

“Do not attempt to grow a brain,” Dennis Hopper warns Keanu Reeves’s tough-guy cop Jack Traven in Speed, and in doing so sums up a time in my life when the path to effortless cool seemed refreshingly simple. Before my cinematic idols went on to encompass fatally flawed heroes, silver-tongued ladykillers and anti-establishment mental patients, the recipe for coolness, as demonstrated by Keanu Reeves in the summer of ’94, was blindingly obvious and ostensibly achievable: chew a lot of gum, do a lot of intense squinting, and – crucially – speak as few words as possible.

It’s fair to say that my own attempts at replicating this formula while trooping around a school playground in north London probably brought less success than Reeves in Speed: in hindsight, a movie star’s finely chiselled sheen may have also been a necessary part of his recipe. Likewise, the above blueprint is perhaps best practised to a background of exploding public transport vehicles and thwarted supervillains rather than suburban traffic jams and uninterested classmates.

But a boy can dream, and whenever Speed crops up on TV, as it often does, it’s hard not to be swept back to a time when being Jack Traven was the simple but unattainable extent of a life’s ambitions. On top of his obvious aesthetic appeal – good looks, biceps bulging through his Swat gear, the ability to remain absurdly casual while whipping a sports car around hairpin bends – he also planted the idea that a guy didn’t need to be a smooth-talking extrovert to reach the pinnacle of cool, or indeed to provoke the advances of improbably attractive commuters at the end of a hard day’s bomb disposal.

Unlike most of his peers, Traven didn’t go about firing verbal take-downs in all directions while saving the world: John McClane he ain’t. He was a doer rather than a talker, and so it was reassuring to discover that my own impulse for keeping social interaction to an absolute minimum was compatible with an action hero’s smouldering charisma – though I should confess that, despite my wilful persistence with the former, the latter has remained maddeningly elusive.

“Do not attempt to grow a brain” could have also served as a tagline for one of the most magnificently brainless action films from what we can now see as a golden age for magnificently brainless action films. The mid-90s threw up, among others, Con Air, Face/Off, The Rock, Air Force One, Broken Arrow and Bad Boys: all mainstays of any adolescent boy’s repertoire, and all with their own gun-toting screen icons.

But Speed stood out above the rest because, while all his peers were busy dispatching their bad guys with a knowingly raised eyebrow, Reeves played his hero as straight as a bullet. As someone who has always been averse to any trend that relies on a dosage of smug irony, it was his persona, rather than those of Cage or Travolta, that resonated most. While Bruce Willis flaunted the gift of the gab, Reeves showed little interest in chitchat and was all the better for it. Traven’s capacity to get his job done with a minimum of unfunny asides and forced repartees is something that appeals to anyone who covets the misanthrope’s life but comes up short in his particular brand of workplace self-assurance.

Hopper’s advice wasn’t heeded, though. Reeves soon did attempt to grow a brain, and in doing so cashed in his status as my personal demigod. The Matrix may have been a blockbusting, era-defining success, it may have reshaped the action genre’s landscape for the millennial generation, it may even have elevated Reeves to the zenith of his leather-trousered stardom – but Neo, with his computer geekery, multiple realities and half-finished Baudrillard textbooks, was an action hero with A-levels. And no schoolkid actually wanted A-levels.

Jack Traven, on the other hand, was the glorious lovechild of Reeves’s two breakout roles: Bill and Ted’s endearing simpleton and Point Break’s gung-ho lawman. His appeal lay in his pointed lack of adornment, be it of his intellect, wardrobe or anything else. With Neo’s metaphysical dilemmas and sweeping trenchcoats, Reeves had complicated his own simple formula. Chew gum, squint, keep quiet and demonstrate a detailed understanding of existential philosophy? That wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

It was inevitable though, I guess. After all, we’re all forced to grow brains in the end. But even so, Speed-era Keanu Reeves lives on as an enduring reminder that reverting back to the good old days remains one of life’s simple pleasures.

Finally, according to HitFlix‘s article, “Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves and Jan de Bont look back at ‘Speed’ 20 years later“:

There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. As movie premises go, this one is absolutely ridiculous, right? You’d have been forgiven for thinking so, at least, as few involved with Jan de Bont’s “Speed,” which was released by 20th Century Fox on June 10, 1994, could have anticipated its popularity. The film was a runaway hit, winning two Oscars and grossing over $350 million worldwide. Now, 20 years later, it’s a celebrated relic of an era before blockbuster filmmaking was so awash in digital wizardry, an era when practical movie magic sold the highest of concepts to the masses.

For actor Keanu Reeves, who starred as the film’s hero, LAPD S.W.A.T. officer Jack Traven, it feels like that long ago if only because so much has changed over the last two decades. Though he had already starred in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break,” it was “Speed” that turned him into an action star Hollywood would test in films like “Johnny Mnemonic,” “Chain Reaction” and “The Matrix” throughout the rest of the ’90s. He looks back on the film today as a fond memory in the unassuming early years of his career.

“I think there’s something that people respond to in the film in the sense that it feels so accessible and human, in a way,” Reeves says. “There’s a vulnerability to it. Having participated in that, and having had a great opportunity, and then to be here 20 years later, it feels like that came from a more innocent time.”

It also came from a time when audiences only knew actress Sandra Bullock, if at all, from work in comedies like “Love Potion No. 9” or futuristic actioner “Demolition Man” opposite Sylvester Stallone. It was “Speed” that sent her career soaring, but, of course, she couldn’t have possibly seen that coming.

“I don’t think anyone had any idea what was going to happen with that film,” the Oscar-winning actress says. “If someone says they did, they’re lying — unless in the editing process they felt something come together. But I certainly didn’t feel it. I think we were sort of ridiculed a bit for being the ‘low budget bomb-on-the-bus movie.’ Not that I cared. I was just so happy to have a job and that I got to work with Keanu. I was grateful no matter what it was.”

Indeed, Bullock wasn’t at all ideal for Fox at the time. The list of more established actresses who were up for the role is long and considerable, from Meryl Streep to Kim Basinger and all points in between. They all turned it down, unmoved by the outlandish concept. But director Jan de Bont fought for Bullock, who had the girl-next-door look and appeal that he felt the role of bus-riding graphic designer (turned bus-driving heroine) Annie needed.

“Initially every studio wants bigger stars for lead roles, and I understand that,” de Bont says. “But I could not see Julia Roberts driving this bus. I could not see several other actresses. I would never believe they would ever even be on a bus. I felt I needed an actress who you could believe would have taken the bus, and Sandra had this kind of every day look – I mean that in a good way — in the way she dresses, the way she behaves, very casual.”

The character of Annie was as important as Jack Traven, de Bont says, because “she had to keep this whole team together and keep the tension going. And responses — secondary reactions are really key in movies like this. How real are they? How believable are they? She did a fantastic job on that. She was exactly what I hoped for, and thank God the studio, at the very last moment, let me choose her.”

The ever-affable Bullock remains indebted to the director, with whom she worked once more on the film’s ill-fated sequel in 1997, for going to the mat for her. “He chose me over so many people that probably would have helped that movie get kicked off in a bigger way,” she says. “He gave me the opportunity. So I’ve got to say, he had some pretty big balls. And I’m grateful for his large balls. And you can quote me on that. And if you can get a visual to go along with that quote, that would be great!”

Filling the bus with reality

De Bont was developing a film about sky-diving at Paramount Pictures when “Speed” first crossed his desk. Even after the studio put it into turnaround, he still maintained an interest in making it his directorial debut because he had a wealth of ideas for how to ground the seemingly fantastical story.

For instance, his desire for a sort of workaday realism didn’t stop with Bullock; it also extended to the characters on bus number 2525. It was important to him that the passengers reflect the multicultural world you encounter on the streets of Los Angeles every day. The studio pushed back, but de Bont was adamant that he have a large number of character actors along for the ride. He was interested not only in realism in his choices, but also the sort of intangible quality that comes with casting less-established actors and the honest reactions they can supply in the heat of an action thriller such as this.

“I really wanted people that happened to connect a little bit,” he says. “You cannot ‘act’ out a lot of those scenes.”

The very reason the film worked at all, Bullock says, is “because of every face and actor you saw on that bus. There was not one false casting note. You genuinely felt that these people would find each other on a bus, and their level of acting and showing the horror — I mean, we’re driving in circles on a bus pretending. They were the ones that I really feel sold the premise and made the movie so good. It could have been so ridiculous, but instead it felt really real and gritty and fresh.”

Nevertheless, Graham Yost’s original screenplay presented more opportunities for a number of those actors, opportunities that they lost as the project was developed further (right up until and during shooting, in fact). Joss Whedon was brought on very late in the game to do a re-write that streamlined the film. In some ways it was by artful necessity; many of the actors will tell you the script needed the tightening. But it was also an economic consideration, as de Bont recalls he wasn’t able to give speaking parts to everyone who was expecting them due to the amount of residuals they would be owed in perpetuity.

“But I wanted to make sure there was a complete balance between the people that had some lines and the people that had no lines, because they’re all the same characters, they all experience the same thing,” de Bont says. “I told them, ‘Listen, even if you think you’re going to just sit on this bus, believe me, you’re not, because I really want you to respond and relate to the events and I’m going to put you right in the middle of it. I’m not just going to try to hide you behind some speaking part. No, you’re going to get a lot of close-ups. I need your reactions. I want the audience to get the same experience, that this is real; these people just happened to wait at the bus stop and get on and suddenly their lives are changed.'”

Whedon’s lament

Yost — a showrunner these days for TV’s “Justified” who sold “Speed” after years toiling away on series like “Full House” and Nickelodeon’s “Hey Dude” — has readily admitted that “98.9 percent of the dialogue” from the film can be attributed to Joss Whedon. But the “Avengers” director, who was a well-regarded script doctor in those days patching up everything from Sam Raimi’s “The Quick and the Dead” to the Kevin Costner bomb “Waterworld,” was arbitrated out of credit for his work. Whedon spoke about his involvement in an interview with NATO’s In Focus magazine in 2005.

“Part of what I did on ‘Speed’ was pare down what they had created, which was kind of artificial,” he told journalist Jim Kozak at the time. “The whole thing about ‘[Jack Traven is] a maverick hotshot,’ I was sort of like, ‘Well, no, what if he’s not? He thinks a little bit laterally for a cop. What if he’s just the polite guy trying not to get anybody killed?'”

Whedon made significant alterations to the plot throughout as well, from killing off Jack’s partner Harry (played by Jeff Daniels) to the disbursement of clues that would lead the LAPD to villainous former cop Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) to transforming character actor Alan Ruck’s role from that of a smarmy lawyer who gets dispatched to a gee-golly tourist who picked the wrong bus. But Yost — who Whedon has conceded is always very polite to him and is, again, quick to praise his contributions — was lobbied to push for sole credit and got it.

“At that time, and to this day, scripts are fluid,” Reeves says. “I think the director has to put their stamp on it and actors come in. With Jan’s vision, there was a kind of economy to it. There was still a lot of room. But I don’t remember feeling any kind of, like, ‘What’s happening!? Where’s the movie going!?’ while we were doing it.”

De Bont, who utilized Whedon’s talents once again on his 1996 “Speed” follow-up “Twister,” was also looking for, there again, authenticity in the rewrite. He felt the dialogue had to reflect how real people would more or less react in a situation like this, and that’s no easy chore.

“They’re not going to be long discussions on the bus,” de Bont says. “It’s all going to be quick and fast. And there’s nothing worse and nothing more difficult or complicated than to come up with short lines for people in panic. It’s one of the most difficult things you could ever ask a writer to do. We tried to come up with some believable variations and also sometimes let the actors on the bus see what they would do and what they would say, how they would react, because it had to feel real.”

So he needed somebody who could think on his or her feet, someone who, if an actor couldn’t come up with something, could spring into action. “I could call him early in the morning and say, ‘Joss, I need two lines for this,'” de Bont explains. “And then he’d called me back 10 minutes later. He’d come up with some great little sayings that were basically continuing the tension, while at the same time pushing some relief into it as well, because you cannot have two hours of constant similarity in reactions. There are all these people who are turning a little cynical or trying to escape the danger by saying something lighthearted. He was extremely good at that and I really, really, totally have respect. I really tried hard to get him credit.”

Additionally, there was an array of action beats that de Bont conceived, ideas that would come to him that he thought he’d like to see in a movie like this. That includes the iconic 50-foot jump the bus makes over a gap in the freeway, easily one of the key money shots of ’90s action filmmaking.

The arbitration became a sticking point for Whedon. He’s admitted that “Speed” is one of the few movies from that era that he worked on that he actually liked, but beyond one of the rare posters he owns that still bears his name, there’s nothing to reflect his participation in the project.

“I’ve always just disagreed with the WGA’s policy that says you can write every line of dialogue for a movie – and they literally say this – and not deserve credit on it,” Whedon told In Focus in 2005. “Because I think that makes no sense of any kind. Writers get very protective of themselves. They’re worried that some producer will want to add a line so he can put his name on it. But what they can do is throw writers at it forever without putting their names on it because of this rule. So I actually don’t think it works for writers. It certainly didn’t work for me.”

According to Roger Ebert:

“Speed” is like an ingenious windup machine. It’s a smart, inventive thriller that starts with hostages trapped on an elevator and continues with two chases – one on a bus, one on a subway – so that it’s wall-to-wall with action, stunts, special effects and excitement. We’ve seen this done before, but seldom so well, or at such a high pitch of energy.

The movie stars Keanu Reeves as a member of the Los Angeles bomb squad. He and his veteran partner (Jeff Daniels) are called in after a mad bomber severs the cables holding an elevator in a high rise building. Now the terrified passengers are trapped between floors, and the bomber wants $3 million or he’ll push a button and blow off the car’s emergency brakes. This situation in itself might make the heart of a thriller, but it’s only a curtain-raiser for “Speed,” which turns into a battle of the wills between Reeves and the madman.

The bomber is played by Dennis Hopper, the most dependable and certainly the creepiest villain in the movies right now. He’s a former cop with a grudge, an intelligent man with a big bag of tricks who seems able to anticipate every one of Reeves’ moves. He wants not only the ransom money but also the satisfaction of humiliating the LAPD, and when he’s outsmarted on the elevator caper, his next trick is truly diabolical.

He rigs an ordinary Los Angeles rapid transit bus so that if it exceeds 50 mph, a bomb will be armed – and then, if its speed falls below 50 mph, the bomb will explode. This is an inspiration that will raise many questions for anyone who has ever been in L.A. traffic, but never mind: It provides the basis for an extended, suspenseful chase sequence that comes up with one ingenious crisis after another.

Reeves manages to get himself on board the bus, of course.

And after the driver is shot by a passenger, another passenger (Sandra Bullock) grabs the wheel while Reeves tries to think a way out of the dilemma, and the bus cruises at 55 mph – in the wrong lanes, in the wrong directions, sideswiping other cars, causing accidents, and eventually ending up on an empty freeway that would provide clear sailing – if it weren’t for a 50-foot gap in an overpass. Can a bus really leap a 50-foot space? This is the kind of movie where you don’t ask questions like that.

The screenplay, by Graham Yost, piles on complications until the movie’s very construction is a delight. Bullock keeps her cool at the wheel while Reeves tries stunts like going under the bus to try to disarm the bomb while it continues to bounce along at high speed.

Meanwhile, the story intercuts between Hopper, who is issuing ultimatums and dropping sinister hints, and Daniels, back at headquarters, who is using computers to try to figure out the blackmailer’s identity.

When the bus episode finally ends, we sit back, drained, ready for the movie to end, too. But it has another surprise in store, a chase on a subway train, with Bullock held hostage and handcuffed inside one of the cars. All of this is of course gloriously silly, a plundering of situations from the Indiana Jones and Die Hard movies all the way back to the “Perils of Pauline,” but so what? If it works, it works.

Keanu Reeves has never had a role like this before. In fact, in his previous film, he played the mystical Prince Siddhartha, and generally he tends toward dreamy, sensitive characters. That’s why it’s sort of amazing to see him so cool and focused here, a completely convincing action hero who is as centered and resourceful as a Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford in similar situations. He and Bullock have good chemistry; they appreciate the humor that is always flickering just beneath the surface of the preposterous plot. And Hopper’s dialogue has been twisted into savagely ironic understatements that provide their own form of comic relief.

Films like “Speed” belong to the genre I call Bruised Forearm Movies, because you’re always grabbing the arm of the person sitting next to you. Done wrong, they seem like tired replays of old chase cliches. Done well, they’re fun. Done as well as “Speed,” they generate a kind of manic exhilaration. The director, Jan De Bont, has worked as a cinematographer on many action classics, including “Total Recall” and “Die Hard.” Here he shows his own mastery, in a great entertainment.

7 thoughts on “On Speed

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