Logan’s Moving Pictures is back with a look at a film that both the brothers Polk disliked. But have 3 decades have changed 1/2 of the duo’s thoughts on SPEED!
There was a point in her life when my little sister Kelly had watched Speed so many times that she could quote it from end to end. In fact, if you watched it with her she could point out all of the mistakes that were left in the movie as well as what would happen next; dialogue that doesn’t match up, boom mics in the shot, and even where it’s a stuntman instead of the actor. She loved Speed. And I think Ryan and I mocked her pretty heavily for that fact.
In fairness to us, we had one VCR in the whole house for most of that era, though Ryan and I both had BetaMax machines in our rooms, so if we wanted to watch something on VHS there was only one place to go. Except Kelly got out of school before we did, so, guess who got first crack at the VCR? I bet we watched Keanu jump on that bus every other day for at least six months, maybe even longer.
So, after several dozen viewings and having to cede time over and over to yet another watch, I think it was okay that we both despised the movie and made fun of our sister for loving it. Especially since now, decades later, I can see we were extremely wrong about the movie. I’ll also add that Ryan came back around on it long before I did, as I remember pretty vividly a rehashed discussion after he’d watched it again a few years ago.
I actually saw Speed in the theatres, oddly enough with my Uncle Bink who recently passed away. I remember greatly enjoying it at the time; it was action-packed, funny, and had this sinister appeal with its villain, played excellently by Dennis Hopper. It was a good time, just not a daily-for-six-months kind of good time, you know?
As I was digging through my brother’s VHS collection I came across a copy of it and smiled. The delusional part of my brain wants to think it’s the very same copy my sister damn near wore out, but the realist in me knows that tape probably bit the dust decades ago. Either way, I knew it had to be next on my list, and since I don’t have a VCR readily available (though I do have one), I did a quick streaming search and happily discovered it was easily accessible.
It started and I immediately felt like I’d made a mistake. The camera pans down the elevator shaft as the credits drift in and out for what feels like ten minutes. When we finally do start the movie proper, it opens with Dennis Hopper giving the least convincing bit of acting in possibly his whole career. It’s cringe, in the parlance of the time. It feels like he’s reading off cue cards, and the stabbing is so telegraphed it’s hard to believe any conscious person wouldn’t have known they were about to get jumped. Fortunately, it’s all uphill from there.Or is it down hill? This is Speed, so, I guess the proper terminology would be “it’s all unfinished freeway from here!”
The one thing in that long pan that really did excite me was seeing that it was written by Graham Yost. In 1994 that name didn’t mean anything to me at all, but having seen it for years during the opening credits of the brilliant Justified television series, he became one of those writer/producers whose work I began to notice. I loved that series. The year before he passed I managed to finally get Ryan to watch it, and sure enough, he adored it as well.
Of course, I took myself to IMDb and looked through where this fell in his early work, shocked to see this was his very first official film credit. I was elated to see that he also penned Broken Arrow and Hard Rain, two action films we’d gone to see and loved with my Dad during our teens. Scrolling back a bit further I saw that not only did he have uncredited rewrites on several other interesting films from my childhood (Operation Dumbo Drop, the Burton Planet of the Apes, and Howie Long’s magnum opus Firestorm), he was a writer on the Nickelodeon series Hey Dude. Hey Dude also happens to have been a show we watched religiously with my Uncle Bink. I’m always amazed at how many connections I find when I go down these rabbit holes.
It was also Jan De Bont’s first film as a director, having spent the previous decade as cinematographer on some of the ‘80s biggest hits (The Jewel of the Nile, Die Hard, Black Rain) and a few of its misses (Leonard Part 6, Clan of the Cave Bear, Who’s That Girl). De Bont would go on to direct Twister, another movie I remember loving for the sheer dumb fun of it, but really falling away from as I got older. Watching this really made me want to revisit it, as well as watch Speed 2, which he also directed. I never sought that one out, mainly because I’m not really a Sandra Bullock fan. Blasphemy, I know.
As the film started proper, watching Keanu and the oddly-cast Jeff Daniels save some folks from an elevator bombing, I found myself more and more enamored the crazier the plot got. The pacing was spot on, never dwelling too long on any bit of ridiculousness, especially the bus having to jump a missing piece of a freeway in California. The dialogue is fun, with only one or two of those punny lines leftover from the ‘80s (“He lost his head” being the worst of them, and given that Joss Whedon had an uncredited rewrite on the script, I blame him) and the action is as intense as it is stupid, which is what you want from a movie like this.
Biggest of all though, I adored the fact that there wasn’t an overly-sexualized female lead, and outside of the one goofy line at the end, no real effort to pivot in that direction. For all of the movie’s wallowing in the things so prevalent in the pop cinema of that era, the fact that they saw fit to shy almost completely away from that one just speaks volumes about what kind of movie they were trying to craft. I loved it for that alone.
As I was reacquainting myself with how great Speed really was, getting enveloped in all its ridiculousness, I was suddenly and completely overtaken by one of the movie’s few emotional moments. You’re probably thinking “It’s when Jeff Daniels dies,” but you’d be wrong. I actually thought he died like ten minutes in, so I just kept waiting for that one.
No, it came with the death of the bus passenger, the one played by “hey-I-know-her” character actress extraordinaire Beth Grant. Not only had I forgotten she was in it, of course, I’d forgotten she died. The moment took me entirely by surprise. It’s quick, tragic, and wholly traumatic, and Bullock and Reeves, along with the rest of the bus passengers, play it out that way.
Watching Bullock’s Annie breakdown as she tells Jack that she was so scared, that she thought when the minor explosion happened that it was over. For her, for him, for everyone. And then realizing it wasn’t, feeling herself still alive, seeing the body of her now-dead co-passenger in the mirror…that she felt relief to still be alive. Horrible sadness and grief, wrapped in a blanket of relief that it wasn’t you.
Reeves, as Jack, comforts her, even finishes a few of her statements, indicating that she isn’t alone in that thought and that it isn’t uncommon. It’s his best moment in the film. Both of their best moments. It’s only a few minutes long, but it says so much about the complicated mess of emotions that overtake you as you try to process all of it.
Underneath this big dumb action movie, with its freeway-jumping bus, mustache-twirling villain, and kind-of-stupid plot, was a message about dealing with all of these complicated emotions, and the fact that feeling both relief and shame when you discover you’re a survivor is perfectly normal. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s ever something you become comfortable with.