There was a science to the ’90s Hollywood studio action movie. It had to have movie stars: People who were charming and pretty, not square-jawed and ripped to shreds, as they had been in the ’80s. It had to take place in environments that were at least vaguely familiar. It had to have a flamboyant insane-genius villain, one who would always be played by a scenery-inhaling character actor. Most of the time, it had to take place over a day or two, usually in a confined space. And it helped if it had a completely fucking ridiculous premise. Given that goofy-ass set of requirements, Speed may well have been the best Hollywood studio action movie of its era. It was definitely one of the biggest and most iconic.
The change started with 1988’s Die Hard, which moved the focus to the Bruce Willis everyman type rather than the lumbering Stallone/Schwarzenegger inhuman lumps, and which showed the value of a tight, focused plot where everything took place in a single location. And 1993’s The Fugitive, a more sprawling movie, showed that an action movie made with that sort of breathless slickness could make a shit-ton of money and earn enough critical acclaim that it could win Oscars. But Speed may have been the movie that completely figured out the lessons of Die Hard.
Jan De Bont, Speed’s rookie director, was in the right place to learn those lessons. He’d been the cinematographer of Die Hard, and he must’ve been studying the way that movie kept firing along and escalating tension. There are plenty of visual echoes, too, especially in the early scenes where Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels are crawling around elevator shafts. There were plenty of Die Hard-on-a-whatever movies during that era, and Speed wasn’t really one of those. Reeves’ character, Jack Traven, didn’t have to slowly kill his way through a battalion of henchmen, leading up to the big villain, and he didn’t really smirk out catchphrases after every big action moment, either. (He did, admittedly, get in one or two good ones.) Instead, the movie kept that Die Hard spirit alive while telling a completely different story.
Those who worked on Speed will tell you that the people at 20th Century Fox didn’t believe in it from the start. The movie had a respectable $30 million budget—one that it eventually made back more than 10 times over—but producers originally offered the Reeves role to Stephen Baldwin, which would’ve made for a way shittier movie. When Reeves showed up on set with his floppy hair cropped down to almost nothing, there was reportedly talk of shutting down production for long enough to let the hair grow back. Future Avengers director Joss Whedon ended up having to do an uncredited script-polish job, rewriting almost all the dialogue that future Justified creator Graham Yost had written. And in this great Hitfix piece on the bus passengers, we learn that even the movie’s extras thought it would be a piece of shit.
They probably had good reason. The premise—a deranged and brilliant ex-cop bomber has rigged a bus to explode if it goes any less than 50 miles per hour—doesn’t make any fucking sense at all. And plenty of the plot points fall apart completely if you give them even the tiniest bit of scrutiny. When the bus crashes into the plane and explodes, are there any passengers on the plane? And even if there aren’t, wouldn’t that plane cost way more than the ransom that Dennis Hopper wanted? Why didn’t they shut down the fucking airport in the first place? Could a TV camera technician really use VHS tape to invent the animated GIF on the fly? Why did Sandra Bullock show up to help drop off the ransom money? How has brilliant thinking-of-everything bad guy Dennis Hopper never heard of dye packs? Has he never watched a bank-robbery movie? And how was he going to escape that runaway subway train?
But the magic of the movie is that it moves so quickly that you don’t find yourself wondering any of that stuff until at least, say, the sixth viewing. There’s a particular suspension of disbelief that’s unique to action movies, and Speed asks all of it. You know that the movie’s entire story is a pretext for vehicular mayhem. And when the vehicular mayhem is as good as what’s in Speed, you don’t just forgive that; you’re completely amped to accept it. When the bus is whipping around turns and smashing rearview mirrors off every car in traffic? When Reeves is sliding under the bus to do a high-speed bomb defusal? When Reeves jumps from the driver’s seat of a speeding Jaguar into the door of the bus? It’s all so giddily, stupidly beautiful. The climactic jump over the incomplete bridge may look fake as fuck, but they really did jump that bus, even if it’s not over some yawning chasm, and you can tell.
And those moments work, in part, because there are no boring moments in between to bog the movie down. It never slows for character development or exposition or comic relief. Instead, all that stuff happens in the context of the action. We learn what we need to know and no more. We might get to like a few characters on the bus, most of whom seem like the sort of random chumps who probably would end up stranded on public transportation, but we never have to learn their life stories. And because the movie hit the jackpot with its two stars, it never has to work to showcase their charisma. That charisma is just there.
Reeves had been a movie star before Speed, but he’d mostly played doofuses in teenage movies—most famously and brilliantly Ted “Theodore” Logan. His one action-hero role had been in Kathryn Bigelow’s great Point Break, and he was good in it mostly because he seemed more like a surfer than an FBI agent. I have this theory that young Reeves was best in movies that required him to be bemused, and even though his Speed character is supposed to be a capable man of action who thinks on his feet, the whole premise is so loony that he spends a good chunk of the movie just trying to wrap his head around what’s going on. Even with the haircut, he comes off less as a cop and more as a mellow bro, and that helps when he’s trying to talk down a bus full of panicking passengers. He also did nearly all of his own stunts, which always makes a huge difference. His leap from the Jaguar onto the bus was Jackie Chan-level in daring, if not grace.
Reeves went supernova after the movie. He was smart enough to avoid its insta-bomb sequel, mystifyingly opting to play Hamlet in a Winnipeg stage production instead. And in the years since, he’s sneakily grown into one of the greatest action stars of all time. If I don’t change my mind and this column plays out the way I’m planning, Reeves will be in a three-way tie as the star who’s headlined the most of these movies. That means he’s up there with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chow Yun-Fat, breathing that rarefied air.
But the movie really won the lottery with Sandra Bullock, who was pretty close to being a complete unknown before Speed. (She’d had big roles in Demolition Man and Love Potion No. 9, but that was really it.) Bullock is so good in Speed, tough and capable and fun and charming and vulnerable. She gets to be the hero for much of it, driving the bus and talking Reeves through it when he finds out his partner’s been killed. And the movie’s honestly pretty shitty final act still manages not to fall apart mostly because we don’t want to see her get blown to bits.
I don’t necessarily know if you can call Dennis Hopper good the same way Bullock was, but as an action-movie villain, he was fucking great. He played his ex-cop bomber as the speechifying acid casualty that he probably was in real life. He gave off the impression that he was improvising all his dialogue, even though that’s not what was happening. And his character got off so many great lines—“Poor people are crazy, Jack! I’m eccentric”—that his character genuinely seemed to care more about spitting hot barbs than collecting ransom money.
Speed had a few imitators, but if anything, I wish it had been more influential. Plenty of other movies tried to outdo its big set pieces, but few of them kept its same rocketing pace or its absolute aversion to plot-heavy bullshit. Instead, Speed wins for 1994 because it’s the most iconic movie of its year, the one that best displayed what a great pop spectacle a mid-budget action movie could be. They don’t make them like that anymore. They’ve pretty much stopped trying.
Other notable 1994 action movies: With Drunken Master II, Jackie Chan elevated his slapstick kung-fu style to new highs, turning in one of the greatest physical performances in action-movie history. I maintain that it’s the best movie Chan ever made, and it’s mind-boggling to consider that he was about to turn 40 when he made it—16 years older than he’d been in the original Drunken Master. So that’s my runner-up for the year. That same year, Jet Li also might’ve made his best movie: Fist Of Legend, a remake of the Bruce Lee classic The Chinese Connection, with fights that will still break your brain today. And arthouse master Wong Kar-Wai finished his long-gestating period kung-fu epic Ashes Of Time, a movie that looks absolutely gorgeous even if I can’t tell what the fuck is happening when I’m watching it.
But Speed aside, 1994 was a weird one for action movies in Hollywood. The Crow, for instance, was a cool, gruesomely gothic comic-book romp, but it had a long shadow over it: Brandon Lee, the movie’s star and one of the most promising action stars of his generation, died in a freak accident while the movie was in production. Surviving The Game was a nasty and deeply watchable B-movie that could’ve made a movie star out of Ice-T if Jean-Claude Van Damme hadn’t appeared the previous year in Hard Target, a better movie with, more or less, the exact same plot. Somehow, we got two different shitty Point Break-biting cop movies, Drop Zone and Terminal Velocity, that both revolved around skydiving.
And then there was True Lies, one of the year’s biggest and most expensive movies, and maybe the last gasp of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transcendent movie stardom. It’s still the only non-sci-fi action movie that James Cameron has ever made, and it blows out Schwarzenegger’s superman invulnerability so completely that it seems to take place in some other dimension. It has some great moments, like the horse/motorcycle chase through the hotel. But it’s also maybe the most toxically rancid big-budget action movie ever made. From its constant humiliation of Jamie Lee Curtis to its faceless Middle Eastern stereotype terrorist villains to its incessant Tom Arnold comedy bits, it’s almost unwatchable today. You’d think that Hollywood might see how much more Speed did with a fraction of the True Lies budget, that it might learn a few lessons about scale and efficiency. But that’s not what happened.
Beyond Schwarzenegger, the action stars of previous eras were having a shitty year. Sylvester Stallone wasted his time teaming up with Sharon Stone in the tangled and incoherent The Specialist. Van Damme made a fun sort of proto-Looper with Timecop, but he also made the notoriously shitty Street Fighter movie. Steven Seagal famously used up all his studio goodwill starring in and directing the absurd and preachy environmentalist action movie On Deadly Ground, a movie so fucking dumb (if sincerely well-intentioned) that, if you haven’t seen it, you’d think I was joking to hear me describe it. Seagal never directed another movie again. And a brink-of-retirement Charles Bronson showed up one last time to sleepwalk through the role of Paul Kersey in Death Wish V: The Face Of Death, a movie that really had no reason to exist.
Also: Ray Liotta busted out of a cheap-looking dystopian prison in No Escape, Charlie Sheen led asshole cop Henry Rollins on an endless high-speed pursuit in The Chase, and Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger starred in a remake of the Sam Peckinpah classic The Getaway that nobody liked. Like I said: weird year.
Next time: Sadly, we enter the Michael Bay era with Bad Boys.