Another Fox selection. Hmm, could this be a trend?
Regular readers of this blog know I’m no stranger to carping about the blockbuster mentality that consumed most Hollywood product starting the 80s . Gone was the indie spirit that characterized so many fine films made during the Golden Age of the late-60s and early 70’s, and I still believe that. Yet, this “Bigger is Better” shift did produce at least one noteworthy by-product: the action movie. It was a genre of which Tinsletown excelled, and they led the world in its production.
From The Terminator to Lethal Weapon to Rambo to Die Hard, producers like Joel Silver and Simpson/Bruckheimer packaged expertly-made, heavy-duty rollercoaster rides loaded with action, action and more action. No these weren’t shlocky little exploitation numbers like the Dearth Wish movies. Nor wee they cerebral character studies like The French Connection. They had one purpose and one purpose only: to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours, wanting more.
Die Hard adjusted he paradigm just a bit by enclosing the setting or situation, and ratcheting up the intelligence and immorality of the bad guys – a must in a new world now of better technology and more media-savvy audiences. Several imitators followed, and afte awhile it became shotrthand to sell a script with the shorthand “Die Hard on a ___________.”
By 1994, the subgenre seemed to be headed for life support, until a movie named Speed took the premise and shook it up a bit. Rather than have a bus taken over by terrorist, why not have it carrying a bomb, programmed to detonate if the bus slows down to under 50 MPH? Longtime DP Jan DeBont thought this would be a groovy idea for his first film as director; others weren’t so sure. So Fox ponied up a B-list star, Keanu Reeves; a completely unknown co-star, Sandra Bullock; and a paltry budget of 30 million dollars to give this guy a chance. The studio was fully expecting its True Lies (the next movie) to be the only action hit of the summer. But while that movie made money, it cost 100 million to make, far less profitable than Speed’s take of over 300 million. And it didn’t get nearly the critical acclaim.
That’s because Speed is phenomenally good. At just under 2 hours, it whizzes by in an instant – that’s because you’re on the edge of your seat throughout the whole damned thing. He sets up the characters fast, fast because…. there’s no time! A mad bomber in the form of Dennis Hopper has cut an elevator’s cables and now controls its emergency brake; the passengers will die unless he gets 3.7 mil. Quickly we meet LAPD officers Jack Traven (Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels, who just barely manage to secure it to another cable so they can get everyone out. They get awarded, but don’t sit back because…. now Hopper’s mad and still wants the money and wants to get back at Jack! So he sets up the aforementioned bus bomb and sits back to see what his nemesis will do. Well, with the help of Annie Porter (Bullock) as the driver, he manages to keep rolling along, overcoming an unfinished highway, a ruptured fuel tank, a video surveillance camera prohibiting anyone from getting off, twists and turns and curves in the road and a myriad of assorted physical obstacles. When all that is said and done… wait!... there’s more: Hopper is still on the loose, and Jack may just have to go mano-a-mano on a runaway subway train, with hostage Annie tied up to enough packed explosives to blow her away to the next planet.
I’ve always had a short fuse with writers and directors who try to pile on too many crises. It comes off as contrived and desperate. But DeBont simply doesn’t give you the time to quibble. Once one sticky situation is averted, he’s got another one lined up to throw at you. He mastery with both story and film editing is beyond reproach – he has an uncanny ability to know just how long you’ll pay attention to something before you wander. Some critics critiqued Speed’s three-act structure, but I think it’s brilliant: DeBont knows the bus plot won’t carry the full two hours – it’s perfect at just over one. And the bookend vignettes are perfect at their respective lengths as well.
DeBont was a DP on Die Hard, not surprisingly, and he clearly put that experience to good use on Speed. But while Speed lacks the human interest and character development of Die Hard, it’s serviceable enough. There’s still plenty of hip, flip, police-buddy dialogue and semi-authentic banter amongst the troops for us no to blanche too much. And somehow, during those few moments where we actually are listening to what they’re saying, we’ve come to like them so much, particularly Reeves and Bulock, that we’ll let them read the phone book. Because by he end we feel like we’ve survived a war with them.
And he learned from Die Hard that suspension of credibility is easy if – you gusssed it – you don’t give them time to think. In the wonderful world of home video, when you can go back and watch again all those questionable moments, you can reassess just how far we’re suspending some of those moments. Answer: very far, as in:
1. The gap in the freeway. Reeves claims it has a slight incline, so they can jump it. They showed it. I didn’t see it. All I saw was the big moment, when somhow, the bust did jump up – VERY high – easily landing on the other side. Bo and Luke Duke, eat your heart out.
2. Jumping the subway track at he end. Of course, the line comes to a end, so what to do? Keanu flors the train so it jumps the track, and proceeds to destroy the station wall and wind up on a outside road, Wait, weren’t they below ground?
3. Re-editing the TV signal. When Reeves discovers Hopper’s watching them on the bus-cam, he has the media intercept the signal who then lay it to tape, edit it so a running loop, rebroadcast the signal to its intended recipient and overriding the original signal. While this procedure is theoretically possible, there’s no way it could be done in the time allotted of a just few minutes.
And there’s more, but why bother going on? I wasn’t thinking about them the first time I saw it back in ’94. I liked it back then, and my opinion hasn’t changed much in the ensuing 23 years. (Jesus, has it been that long?) But there is one thing I appreciated more this time: Dennis Hopper. That dude can play a friggin’ villain! I think it mostly has to do with his combination of intelligence (all good baddies must have it) and chilling psycopathy, which he demonstrates with a sort of poetic philosophy. I was both intrigued and disturbed by his rants about bombing as an art, and how every unexploded bomb is a tragedy, never realizing fulfillment or self-actualization. For just a moment I even felt sorry for him. Just a brief moment, that is; then I went back to hating his living guts.
And one more thing. Made in 1994, Speed came out well before digital effects subsumed everything in entertainment, and I look back fondly on films that worked their magic purely on models, editing, stunt work, extensive second-unit and painstaking set labor – all things that have since become easier in the CGI era, and more obviously so. Seeing a film like Speed again gave me the same reaction I had after revisiting Die Hard – How in god’s name did they make this picture?
I’m not going to ask any more – I’m only going to watch and enjoy. That too, after all, is the magic of the movies.