Pop quiz, hotshot. 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. What do you do? What do you do?
If you know those words, and I’ll bet that you do, it’s because you’ve seen Speed, one of the most successful narrow-premise action-thrillers of the past 30 years. Inspired by Runaway Train—perhaps one of the most underappreciated movies of the 1980s—Speed channels that frustration we all feel when we are stuck in traffic but really have somewhere to go now. We often feel our lives depend on it, but in Speed, peoples’ lives really do. This is a movie that is all about having to drive with the pedal down in a city known for its legendary ability to make even the most dedicated motorist idle in place all day long. It is not great cinema, but it is immensely enjoyable and takes what amounts to a studio elevator pitch and turns it into an engaging adventure that works far better than it has any right to, mainly because of the sharp writing, relatable characters, fabulous cinematography and some of the most ballsy stunt coordination seen in a loooooong time.
The story begins with LAPD SWAT responding to a hostage situation in a high-rise; a bomber (Dennis Hopper) has a bunch of people trapped in an elevator and will blow its brakes if he’s not paid a whole bunch of money. Supercops Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) have other plans, and foil the plot. The bomber decides to get even by blowing up a mostly empty city bus right in front of Jack. You know, to get his attention. Then he tells him about a separate, full bus rigged with a bomb that triggers once the bus hits 50 mph, and detonates once it drops below 50. Jack knows he’s been drafted into a sick game by a vengeful bad guy, but he has no choice but to play. And so, he races to the commuter-filled bus and commandeers it. Passenger Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock, who practically defines moxie here) is stuck driving at breakneck speeds through the heart of downtown LA while she, Jack and the rest of the metro bomb squad try to figure a solution to an explosive 50 mph problem. Even the bomber knows there’s no way for Jack to prevail here, and that’s the point: to make him dance while the whole city watches until he and a busload of innocent people disappear in a ball of flame.
What elevates the stakes here is the likeability of the supporting characters, most of whom we’d really rather not see perish. They are, for the most part, regular people having an extraordinary bonding experience while trying not to freak out at the severity of their predicament. One of them, a hapless tourist played by Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) definitely gets more than what he bargained for on his big trip to the city, and we feel for the poor guy. Earlier in the story, Jack must commandeer a motorist’s sports car while the motorist remains alongside, loudly instructing Jack not to total his ride. We feel for that guy too more than any movie like this normally ask us to. And that’s what make Speed works. Where most other action films get by on bravado, grit and testosterone, in Speed, we see decent people trying not to let each other down, and there is something very endearing about that.
To the bomber’s delight, Jack and Annie prove remarkably skilled and resilient as they manage to pilot the bus through any number of obstacles that would have been the downfall of less tenacious drivers. We spend the heart of the movie watching the bus zoom through downtown L.A. in one stunt sequence after another, wondering how it will avoid explosion this time. It all culminates in the movie’s signature stunt where in Annie must jump the bus across a 50-foot stretch of unfinished highway that might stretch our suspension of disbelief, but it doesn’t make us any less invested in seeing if Annie sticks the landing.
But for me, that’s not the moment of truth. It’s a bit earlier in section, when Annie takes a wrong turn into a really congested part of town, with little room to maneuver and lots of pedestrians in the way. At this point, she’s still in the angry denial phase of her weird hostage experience, angry at this jackass bomber who stuck her in this situation and angry at this cop who keeps telling her what to do. She knows how to drive, okay? But then there is a split-second when Annie’s concentration lapses for just a moment, and a woman walks out in front of the bus pushing a baby stroller. Annie broadsides the stroller and sends it flying through the air in a long, slow, silent moment that makes us see things as Annie must, with agonizing realization as what has just been done.
How it all plays out kind of captures this movie in a single moment; a tense thriller not willing to pull any punches, but sufficiently self-aware to play with your expectations, either for comedy, or for shock, or maybe a bit of both. Not a lot of movies hit that Goldilocks Zone so perfectly, but Speed does it and stays there, and even though you’re glad once the bus finally stops rolling, you have to admit to yourself that it was a pretty awesome ride while it lasted.