In a post Die Hard movie universe practically every other action film made is a Die Hard knockoff. You can’t blame them. The quality of Die Hard is something action directors should aim for and all the money and popularity doesn’t hurt either. Speed most certainly is a bi-product of Die Hard, they even tried to get John McTiernan to helm the film and Reeves initially turned it down because he thought it was too similar to Die Hard. So is there enough difference here to make Speed stand on its own or is it simply running off the momentum of its predecessors?
If you were going to be trite you’d say that Speed is Die Hard on a bus. But there’s a bit more to it than that. It’s hero, Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves), is a bit of a daredevil, constantly volunteering himself and his partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) for dangerous tasks, such as the opening sequence where the two must rescue a group of people trapped in an elevator rigged to blow. After Jack saves the day and the mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) gets away the crazed man takes it to the next level, rigging a bus to blow if it goes under 50 miles an hour.
The film sound fairly simple and demented, but it gets rather tense and exciting as Jack must juggle multiple conflicts. He’s got to handle the emotionally deteriorating Annie (Sandra Bullock) who is driving the bus, a group of scared passengers, the demands of a madman and, worst of all, Los Angeles traffic jams. The film superbly ratchets up these tensions bit by bit, allowing one conflict to be resolved for a moment only to have another conflict spout up. It becomes a very, tense, suspenseful film as quick thinking and fast reflexes are strained to the limit.
Therefore, it’s disappointing that the last act of this film derails a lot of what made the rest of the film so exciting. The juggling of multiple problems at once gives way to one simple problem that prolongs the picture for another twenty minutes. The reason for this entire third act is to resolve two issues that probably could have been handled in a swifter, more elegant way. Instead the film drags its feet to the credits with an anticlimactic third act.
The main reason why the third act fails is simple: Dennis Hopper is not a threatening presence in this film. In fact, I’ll just come out and say it: I think Hopper is an overrated actor. He falls into this very stale role as someone who is supposed to be crazy but isn’t half as insane as the Keanu Reeves character. The film could have been this great conflict of gutsy characters but Hopper plays it flat and demands absolutely no physical menace at any point of the film. Even some of the more creepy lines are delivered without any sense of threat or dread.
Luckily, the rest of the cast is solid. Part of the reason why the film is so tense is that these performances make us care about these characters. Reeves is about as crazy as Mel Gibson in this film, although he’s nowhere near as over the top. He works well as this action here and isn’t asked to flex his emotional acting muscles. Sandra Bullock is, as always, charming and probably the main reason we don’t want the bus to blow. Her wit and charm keep the slightly mad Reeves in check. The film also has Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or, as he’s known in the real world, Alan Ruck. He’s a hilariously talkative tourist names Stephens who has the wrong perspective on this whole bomb on bus issue.
The constant juggling of multiple conflicts paired with the likability of the bus’ inhabitants makes Speed a tense, fun and thrilling action flick. It takes its cues from Die Hard, but is only better for it. There’s enough different and fresh here to keep it from being a knockoff. However, the poor third act and horrible villain create a loss of momentum in the third act. It’s a film that comes close to being great but fails to keep the tempo needed to go the full distance.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing