LAPD cops Jack Traven and Harry Temple rescue a group of executives trapped in a sabotaged elevator, thus foiling mad bomber Howard Payne's ransom demands. In retaliation, Payne sets a new challenge for Traven: a bomb on a city bus which will arm itself when the bus reaches 50 mph, and which will explode if the bus drops below that speed or if any of the passengers try to escape.
In downtown LA a bus explodes in front of bomb-disposal cop Jack Traven (Stephen Baldwin). Shocked, he walks to a ringing pay-phone and picks the receiver up. "Pop quiz hotshot," a voice (Ed Harris) hisses, "there's a bomb on a bus ..." Meanwhile office worker Annie Potts (Halle Berry) boards the 2525, unaware of the drama about to unfold... The pitch, of course, is as good as it ever was. But had 20th Century Fox gone with the original casting choices, who knows if Speed would have become the major action hit of the 90s.
But then again Fox had few hopes with the cast and key crew that they eventually wound up with. Graham Yost was an unknown screenwriter with a factual book about spy gadgetry and a few sitcom scripts behind him. Jan De Bont was better known as Joel Schumacher's cinematographer of choice (Flatliners). And Keanu Reeves, well wasn't he the guy from Bill And Ted? Great at the shambling surf-dude schtick, sure... but playing an action hero? It's tempting to credit Speed's success to Graham Yost's screenplay; the central conceit is certainly a classic. It should be. Much of the original idea was Akira Kurosawa's. Back in 1990 Yost, then a struggling writer of book jacket copy and entries for The Encyclopaedia Britannica had first heard of an unproduced Kurosawa screenplay about a train that had a bomb on board and couldn't stop from his father Elwy, who with his regular TV show was Canada's version of Barry Norman.
The screenplay was made by the infamous Golan/Globus Cannon partnership in 1985 and predictably transformed into a box-office disaster Runaway Train. Yost eventually went to see the film and realised that dad had got it wrong, there was no bomb involved (in fact, his Dad may have been remembering the 1975 Japanese movie Bullet Train and mixing it up with the similar Kurosawa script). "I came out of the movie and thought it was pretty good," he later remembered, "but I thought it would have been better if there was a bomb that was going to blow up. Being physically able to stop but not being able to because something horrible would happen. And I thought it would work better on a bus. I pitched the idea to a friend and said the bus shouldn't go below 20 miles an hour. He said "Make it 50." Speed started to gather, well, momentum.
But if the problem that Speed's screenplay sets is a compelling example of the high-concept hook, the casting of Reeves and Bullock is the classy chassis over the purring plot engine. "Chemistry" is an overused word in movie circles, but this couple have the celluloid equivalent of Thomas Salter's Lab 7, the one with two tubes of magnesium ribbon. A fact attested to by Speed 2: Cruise Control's disastrous failure, partly the result of a moronic script certainly, but Jason Patric, ruggedly good-looking as he was, just couldn't match Reeves's buzz-cut brio.
When Jack Traven first arrives he's the picture of gum-chewing action man heroics complete with all the cool optional accessories: neck mikes, outrageous firepower, combat pants, a ramp-leaping car and a slightly less good-looking buddy with whom to trade wiscrackery. You wind up feeling that there is quite possibly a switch behind his velvety noggin with which to operate the Eagle Eyes. Sandra Bullock avoids the traditional screaming imperilment traditionally required of women in action movies and as a couple, they're as attractive as any in screen history.
And then there's the pace. Die Hard springs to mind, but even McTiernan's classic didn't leap into the action and salty Shane Black-esque one-liners (in fact, mostly penned by an uncredited Joss Whedon who did a comprehensive dialogue polish) as rapidly as De Bont's movie; he wastes no time at all. We meet our villain — Dennis Hopper as a psychotic action movie baddie, why didn't anyone think of that before — within a minute of the opening credits. Within seconds we've had a brutal head stabbing, a lift plunge, and Dennis Hopper laughing demonically.
Here, as with the rest of the film De Bont — with surgical precision — guts the movie of any extraneous material leaving only one gloriously extended action scene. For a movie so apparently self-assured it seems strange that Speed turned out to be an unrepeatable confluence of happy accidents.
Jan De Bont would reveal himself to be a directorial flash in the pan, delivering with Speed 2: Cruise Control the worst sequel to a genuine hit since John Boorman ordered up a mess of locusts and excreted Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Graham Yost sans Japanese input would prove unable to pull off the same bravura screenplay fireworks, penning the relatively disappointing Broken Arrow (1996) and Hard Rain (1998) before producing the truly unbearable Mission To Mars (1999). Sandra Bullock would go on to the sappy likes of Forces Of Nature. But it did transform Reeves into a copper bottomed superstar who would cement his rep as the key action performer of the decade by appearing in the next movie to utterly redefine the the action and sci-fi genres simultaneously: The Matrix.
There are very few action movies that cut to the chase quite as quickly as Speed and then have the stamina to keep it up for nearly two hours.