Retro Film Review: Speed (1994)

in film •  last year 

"Thrillride of the summer" is a magical phrase that saves legitimate movie critics from being branded sell-outs. It allows them not to admit that they were degraded to the intellectual levels of unwashed masses while they were enjoying Hollywood blockbusters. It also helps them to later explain why they were giving two, three or five thumbs up to the industry products that couldn't pass objective inspection. One of such products, ideal for the use of phrase, is Speed, 1994 action thriller by Dutch cameraman turned director Jan de Bont, summer blockbuster that used to be called "the movie of the year" in those pre-Tarantino times.

The plot of the film is nice example of utter simplicity. Harry Payne (played by Dennis Hopper) is a mad bomber who wants to extort money from the city of Los Angeles and, in the process, get even with Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves), daring policeman who had foiled Payne's similar stunt in the past. Payne rigs the city bus and sets the device to arm itself whenever bus exceeds 50 mph speed limit. The bomb wouldn't explode as long as the speed doesn't decrease below that level. Traven becomes aware of that and first he races to get to the moving bus, and than to stop it from going under the critical speed limit. Among helpless passengers is Annie (played by Sandra Bullock), who would have to take the role of a driver.

Plot, although nothing but a adhesive material for three long and spectacular action scenes, is rather complex in comparison with the characters in Speed. This "high concept" product hardly needs characters – cardboard cut-outs seem to do the trick. The most noticeable example is Jack Traven, character without any life apart from what we see on the screen. Lack of character and emotion is adequate for the wooden style of acting by Keanu Reeves. Dennis Hopper, on the other hand, plays just another in his long series of psychotic villains, not trying at all to be original. The only real personality in this film is Sandra Bullock, in rather thankless role of romantic sidekick that, ironically, launched her into Hollywood major league. But, she, as well as anything else, is secondary to the relentless attack on viewers' audio-visual senses and their hormones. Jan de Bont, after spending lots of his career on the sets of great directors, learned couple of tricks, and it shows - Speed is really entertaining film, full of breathtaking stunts, explosions, chases and other spectacular actions. Unfortunately, those qualities seem to wear off on the second viewing, when the critical audience becomes painfully aware of paper characters, lot of implausibilites, lack of originality and whole series of plot holes who could devour entire galaxies. The impression is becoming even worse when Speed gets compared with action genre classics like Die Hard or Aliens, that could entertain the audience for years afterwards. And here lies the answer why "thrillrides of the summer" quickly burn out of our memories as soon as leaves start falling in the autumn.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on May 9th 1999)

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