Before seeing Speed for the first time I turned my nose up at it because, being an arrogant youth, I thought such low brow action fare was for idiots. Then I got around to actually seeing it and had to admit that I enjoyed it immensely. I've seen it several times now, and after this most recent viewing I've come to the conclusion that it's one of the best, if not the best, action movies of the nineties.
Speed begins with excitment, and it pretty much never slows down for a breather. During the first act, an insane bomber (Dennis Hopper) traps some people inside an elevator and threatens to blow it unless he's given a lot of money. Unfortunately, his dastardly plan is foiled by two police officers - the stoic and somewhat loopy Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and the more restrained and intelligent Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels). The mad bomber is more than a little pissed - he takes it personally and sets out not only to get his money but to get even with the two cops. He blows up a bus, and then tells Traven that a bomb has been placed on another bus. It will become active once the bus exceeds 50 MPH, and if the bus subsequently drops below that speed, it'll blow up. Traven manages to get on to the bus (via a daring leap from a moving vehicle) too late, as the bomb is already armed. An accident on board results in the bus driver being incapacitated, which results in one of the passengers, the vivacious Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), getting behind the wheel.
The movie is non stop thrills from beginning to end - the opening elevator sequence is only a teaser compared to what follows. The occupants of the bus have to contend with traffic, near misses with pedestrians, a gunman, and various other obstacles, which are topped off with an impossible leap across a gap in an incomplete freeway. As if the events on the bus weren't enough, there's also an incident involving a train that beggars belief. Events on the bus are intercut with Harry Temple's attempts to track down the bomber. The interaction between the passengers, in particular Jack and Annie, and the antagonistic exchanges between Jack and the bomber take up the rest of the film's runtime.
This isn't a movie to be taken seriously - it's a roller coaster ride of a movie. And as such a movie, it's terrific. Sure, the events are improbable to say the least, and there isn't much character depth, but the plot is coherent enough and the characters are sketched well enough for the genre. The writing is excellent, possibly due to the work of an uncredited Joss Whedon. It's funny in a smart way, and the action dialogue is self-consciously overblown ("whaddaya do? WHADDAYA DO?!?"). The exchanges between Jack and the bomber are witty and memorable, with the latter toying with the hapless and not too bright cop.
The three leads are all great, but best of all is probably Keanu Reeves, who seems to have taken the role quite seriously. It's quite a departure from playing Ted 'Theodore' Logan. Reeves plays the role of Traven with an animal-like intensity and single-mindedness. He's convincing as a man driven by instinct and not thoughts, a man who will throw himself in harms way with reckless abandon. Even his physical movements are often akin to those of a prowling cat. Dennis Hopper is outrageously over the top, but he's supposed to be a nutter and it works - he delivers his lines with manic enthusiasm, and it's fun to watch. Last but not least is Sandra Bullock in the role that made her famous. She's sweet and tenacious and really funny - there's no sense of Hollywood glamour about her, just natural charm. The supporting cast on the bus are pretty good as well, and Joe Morton and Jeff Daniels make the most of their roles.
Director Jan de Bont has made lots of crappy films since debuting with Speed, which is a shame. Speed is tense and exciting and has well coreographed action sequences which are all the more remarkable when you consider that a lot of them involved moving vehicles (CGI cheats weren't quite so easy back in those days). Even the handful of emotional scenes are handled respectably. On technical merits, it's excellent - well edited and shot, and there's no weak link to be found in any production aspect of the film. The thumping score complements the film perfectly.
Action movies don't get much better than this. Seriously. Speed is a great example of how action movies ought to be made (and it's sequel is a great example of how they ought not to be made). It's a terrific piece of entertainment.