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Empire List #451: Speed

“There’s a bomb on the bus!” Remember that line? Nothing gets an action movie going like a bomb with a digital clock, car chases, and a maniacal villain holding dozens of people hostage. Jan de Bont’s 1994 “Speed” combines all of these elements, creating one of the best summer movies of the 90s. This was before Keanu Reeves became known as “The One” and before giant digital robots invaded cinemas. Good times.

Sadly, I never got to see this adrenaline injection on the big screen. To be fair, I must have been around 7 at the time it came out, so I wasn’t into big action movies yet. However, in the late 90s you couldn’t flip a channel without seeing “Speed” playing at night. So I ended up watching it over a long period of time at various places when my family and I had first moved to Chile. We must have watched the last half in a hotel room, and bits and pieces later on in our first house. We could never find a channel where it was playing from the beginning. Maybe when I have the cash for it I will buy a big high-definition TV and watch the whole thing from beginning to end on Blu-Ray.

Although it’s not like I ever missed any vital piece of information. “Speed” has one of the most simplistic yet effective storylines ever thought of for an action movie. Dennis Hopper plays a terrorist named Howard Payne (scary name) who has placed a bomb on a Los Angeles express bus. Once the bus goes past 50 miles per hour the bomb is activated. If the bus slows down, the bomb explodes. If passengers try to get off, Payne blows up the bus manually. And above all, if Payne doesn’t get his money, the bomb goes BOOM!

These straightforward instructions are explained over the phone to LAPD bomb expert Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) who thwarted Payne’s previous extortion attempt that involved an elevator filled with office workers. Traven and his partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) thought Payne had been killed in an explosion during the standoff. They really should have looked harder for a body.

Once the set-up has been explained officer Traven races to the bus, and jumps onboard from a convertible on a freeway. A shootout between him and a criminal onboard injures the driver, forcing passenger Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) to take the wheel. The love interest has now been introduced and the movie drives off at full speed.

The bus goes through a series of obstacles on the L.A freeway in its mad attempt to stay at full speed. It crashes into other cars, street separators, and even manages to fly. It’s the little bus that could.

It makes no sense, but it’s not supposed to. What it is supposed to do is keep you on the edge of your seat, and watching Keanu Reeves going under the bus on a sled to diffuse the bomb will do just that.

In a movie like this there is little time for character development, but all of the actors are good at what they are doing. Reeves is in good enough shape to look like a cop, but doesn’t look like a body-builder. He’s just one of the guys on the force. When he has scenes with Jeff Daniels, they joke around as if they had a good working relationship, providing some much needed humour to the situation.

Meanwhile Dennis Hopper steals the show as the psychopath who enjoys toying with Reeve’s character by emphasizing how smart and devious he is. As he explains his evil plan over the phone it almost seems like a game to him: “Pop quiz hot shot!”

I feel kind of nostalgic for this kind of no-holds bar summer movie that uses practical stunts and is rated R. This summer, the biggest movies will be “Green Lantern”, “Thor”, “X-Men: First Class”, and a fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean”. I look forward to watching these movies, but whatever happened to summer movies that have swearing, guns, explosions, car chases, bombs, and practical effects?

The closest thing to approach the manic energy of “Speed” was last fall’s “Unstoppable” starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine as two train operators trying to stop a runaway train filled with explosives. Thank you Tony Scott for keeping it real.

(Note: I also did end up watching “Speed 2: Cruise Control” on TV. Even Sandra Bullock, who unfortunately signed up for the unnecessary sequel, admitted it was a major disaster.)


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