Speed 30th Anniversary Review: A Well-Paced Thrill Ride of a Die Hard-type Action Genre

The unexpected success of Die Hard in 1988 (I mean, who could have thought the Moonlighting star Bruce Willis would make it big as an action star?) has opened the doors for many “Die Hard on a (fill in the blank)” types of action genre over the next decade. The 1990s saw an influx of them, from Die Hard 2 to Passenger 57, Cliffhanger and The Rock. But here’s the unlikeliest one of all during that era: Speed.

Released in 1994 during the crowded summer movie season, it boasts an unbelievably high-concept premise and that would be “Die Hard on a bus“. It sounds crazy but that’s the whole point and it works. The first time I learnt about this movie back in the day, I figured this must be one of those B-grade nonsense meant for us to sit back and enjoy the cinematic ride type of movies.

The cast and crew, save it for Dennis Hopper who is no stranger to playing madman roles (see 1986’s Blue Velvet), features a roster of unlikely talents involved in front and behind the cameras. We have Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels playing cops and even though the former already played a law enforcement officer before in Point Break, let’s keep in mind the early ’90s era of Keanu Reeves was more associated with his Bill & Ted‘s heyday.

The movie also includes Sandra Bullock, fresh off her last year’s Demolition Man and she was more of an up-and-coming star back then. Interestingly, before Bullock came on board, other potential actresses such as Halle Berry originally tapped to play the role, albeit a different one — not a bus driver but rather a paramedic. She ended up rejecting the role but imagine if it happened, this would be one of the greatest what-if scenarios seeing Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry together in Speed. Fortunately, the two did appear together twenty-five years later in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.

Then, there’s Jan de Bont making his feature-length directorial debut. He’s already a well-established cinematographer who frequently collaborated with Paul Verhoeven in movies like The 4th Man and Basic Instinct. And ironically, he’s the man who did the cinematography work in the first Die Hard.

What was originally an under-the-radar Speed turned out to be a surprise hit in 1994, grossing over US$350 million worldwide against a reportedly US$30 million budget. Speed is no doubt one of the best “Die Hard on a…” action movies ever made and even thirty years after its release, it still has the rewatchability factor. One of the movie’s enduring successes lies in its well-paced, three-act structure modelled like an elaborate climactic finale in different settings.

Dennis Hopper in "Speed" (1994)

The first setting takes place in the elevators of an office building and here, we are introduced to LAPD SWAT officers Jack Traven (Reeves) and Harry Temple (Daniels) attempt to save the hostages trapped in one of the elevators rigged with a bomb. The bomber, Howard Payne (Hopper) demands a US$3 million ransom and it’s up to Traven and his partner to foil his plan. From the first act itself, the movie successfully establishes a sense of lived-in chemistry between Reeves’ maverick Jack Traven and Daniels’ more sensible Harry Temple and they play off each other well. Dennis Hopper is a perfect pick for this kind of mad bomber role and he’s easily one of the most memorable antagonists for a Die Hard-type action movie.

Speed does take a breather later on, but Jan De Bont, working from Graham Yost’s screenplay, wise enough to keep it short and simple before moving on to the pivotal second act: the bomb-on-the-bus sequence. It’s up to Jack Traven to save the day as Howard Payne has planned a bomb on one of the buses that will detonate if it reaches 50 miles (80.4 km) per hour or even below. Mark Mancina’s pulsating score helps to enliven the already-breathless pace of the movie, thanks to De Bont’s sure-handed direction, the second act sustains its tension from Jack pursuing the bus to jumping on board with one of the passengers, Annie (Bullock) takes over the injured driver. The tight space within the confines of a bus speeding along the Los Angeles city traffic and later, the highway allows De Bont to heighten the claustrophobic tension while generating enough high-octane thrills to keep us glued to the screen.

The movie culminates in an equally riveting third act set in a speeding train. The cat-and-mouse chase between Jack Traven and Howard Payne, both fearlessly stubborn individuals on either side of the law trying to outwit each other elevates the palpable tension beyond the movie’s technical prowess. Not to mention the unforgettable chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, where the latter isn’t a typical damsel-in-distress character. Serving more than just a mere love interest, her character may have been a chatty and nervous person but never annoying. She does panic like a normal person would behave and yet, she manages to hold on under pressure while keeping the bus at an optimal speed.

Speed excels in its practical stunts and back when the CGI is used sparingly. One of the best action set pieces worth mentioning here would be the iconic bus jump. The movie also does a great job with the punchy dialogue and one-liners, notably Howard Payne’s “Pop quiz, hotshot” moment.