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Speed: 25th anniversary of ‘the bus that couldn’t slow down’

You know what they say about relationships based on intense circumstances… (c) 20th Century Fox

Speed opened 25 years ago today. It would captivate audiences all summer long as it did steady business week after week. Movies used to do that as people discovered movies and told their friends. It’s easy to see why. Speed was the quintessential high concept movie.

There’s a bomb on the bus and Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) has to keep it driving 50 miles an hour. So how many things can happen to this bus and keep the film going? Screenwriter Graham Yost (with Joss Whedon rewrites) thought of about an hour’s worth, but also a tense elevator rescue prologue and a subway finale.

I wish movies today would still embrace absurd feats like Speed. (C) 20th Century Fox

The most famous bit is jumping the bus over an unfinished section of freeway. I support this because I always say movies should make less sense. “Because it’s awesome” is the explanation for the freeway jump.

Now that I’ve lived in LA, I have a newfound appreciation for maintaining a speed of 50 mph. Even on the freeway you’re lucky to maintain a consistent speed. Speed is even more harrowing when you take that into account.

If they remade Speed I guess Howard Payne would call Jack (Keanu Reeves) on his cell phone. (c) 20th Century Fox

Speed goes to show you that the world doesn’t have to be at stake to make an exciting blockbuster. Jack Traven only has to save a dozen passengers and maybe the city of LA from collateral damage, and we’re invested.

That’s probably why the John Wick movies are so compelling. He’s only trying to stop the people who wronged him from wronging any more. The Matrix was for the whole world but not every movie has to be The Matrix.

“In 12 years, let’s meet at the lake house.” (c) 20th Century Fox

Speed was advertised as “Die Hard on a bus,” from Peter Travers’ Rolling Stone review. He actually said, “Hollywood cynics have tagged Speed as Die Hard on a bus.” Whether meant as a pejorative or as a “woo hoo, Die Hard on a bus!,” I don’t agree.

The Die Hard scenario is where a lone hero is trapped in a contained space outnumbered by villains. Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) is the only villain and he’s not even on the bus with them.

In the ’90s, if you needed a bad guy, you called Dennis Hopper. (c) 20th Century Fox

So Under Siege is Die Hard on a Boat. Passenger 57 is Die Hard on a plane. Under Siege 2 is Die Hard on a train but Speed is more like a rolling Poseidon Adventure where Jack has to keep solving problems to keep the passengers alive.

And they did come up with a lot to keep the action moving. There’s getting on the bus in the first place, traffic, turns, jumps, rolling transfers and even rolling under the bus.

They literally threw Keanu Reeves under the bus. (c) 20th Century Fox

Speed opened 25 years ago but I actually saw it a week before at a sneak preview. They also used to do that to build up buzz for upcoming releases, and they’ve started doing it again for movies like Rocketman and Love, Simon.

I actually wasn’t impressed with Speed at first. Fortunately Speed lasted the whole summer so I had a chance to reevaluate it and be won over like the rest of America.

Sneak preview of Speed in 1994!

At first I thought the whole business of a random passenger shooting the bus driver was silly. If they wanted Annie (Sandra Bullock) to drive the bus they could have just made Annie the bus driver.

I realized that they didn’t make Annie the driver because then she’d have to wear an unflattering bus driver’s uniform. They wanted Annie driving the bus but in a cute summer dress.

I guess forcing a regular woman to drive the bus creates more suspense too and it gives Payne the Wildcat clue he drops. And it gives us the awesome transfer scene where they let the injured driver off, but they could’ve still had a passenger with a medical emergency or something and need to get off.

Jack Traven brought a badge to a gunfight. (c) 20th Century Fox

Plus, the passenger is clearly shown thinking Jack is coming after him so I don’t know why I didn’t notice that was very well established the first time. And it’s clearly Ortiz (Carlos Carrasco)’s fault for tackling the gunman when Jack totally had it handled.

The passengers still give wildly uneven performances but that’s part of the charm. A real hostage situation would have a whole range of emotions.

Save it for Speed II. (c) 20th Century Fox

I still don’t like the finale on the subway. It makes Annie too passive to get kidnapped again, and I felt they could have done a whole movie on a subway. It would’ve made a better sequel than Speed 2: Cruise Control.

Well, they did make Money Train a year later. And here they crash a subway onto Hollywood Blvd. I can’t imagine driving in town around the closures to film that. I worked at the movie theater in 1994 and ushered Speed all summer. I had no idea I was looking at my future home.

“Pop quiz, hot shot!” (c) 20th Century Fox

I always imagined an alternate ending where Payne is still watching the video loop while Jack comes busting in with the SWAT team. Oh well, we’ve got the subway.

I get it in a “give the people more than they expected” way, but I don’t think they quite sold how they move the action to the subway. I guess it still shows Payne is smart enough to move the money and he’s not going to be that easy to kill. How did he not anticipate the ink pack though? And it is a fun callback when the track isn’t finished either.

The opening of Speed would be exciting even without the bus. (c) 20th Century Fox

I was spoiled in the ‘90s. Action movies were always this clearly constructed. I shouldn’t have taken for granted these practical stunts.

The opening has an elevator held up by a crane, but keeps pulling it down. That gives you a clear sense of the ticking clock that’s going to drop these hostages, plus it ends with a crane pulled through an office building. That’s not CGI.

Glenn Plummer has a lot of problems in ’90s movies. (c) 20th Century Fox

The whole bus premise has clear parameters but so does each scene within it. When Jack first has to catch the bus, we understand the bus doesn’t want to stop for him so he’s working against more than just speed. And it’s all vehicular stunts while the bus creeps up to 50.

When they have a tight turn they make clear the problems with balancing the bus’s weight. When Jack punctures the gas tank, they show the needle incrementally moving towards E.

A lot of action movies now don’t bother to construct scenarios like this. They just jiggle the camera and chop it up.

There wasn’t a faster, more furious movie in 1994. (c) 20th Century Fox

And just imagine filming every scene of this movie in motion, resetting take after take. Even the Fast and the Furious movies do a lot on green screen now. They’d never shoot a movie like Speed again.

Speed became such a phenomenon I’m surprised “Speed on a_____” didn’t become as prolific as “Die Hard on a _______”. I do prefer Homer Simpson’s title: The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down. It’s not as bombastic but it’s honest.

Watching Speed again is exhilarating though. Speed delivers thrills that modern movies not starring Keanu Reeves just don’t.

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