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Keanu Reeves Week: Speed (1994)

IT’S JUST LIKE DRIVING A REALLY BIG PINTO.

by Liz Shannon Miller

In most major metropolitan areas around the world, taking the bus is a natural part of life, with no stigma attached. In Los Angeles, though, taking the bus is seen by many as weird and dangerous; a last resort for those struck by the tragedy of being carless. So of course a movie about a bus gone amuck is set in this city, the bomb strapped underneath almost as dangerous a threat as the traffic. Of course this is the city where “You will believe — a bus can fly.”   

The 1994 movie Speed is a celebration of Los Angeles’s public transportation system, such as it is — incomplete freeways, buses crowded with random strangers, a woefully inadequate subway system.  (When people say, “Wait, L.A. has a subway system?” this is the movie to remind them of.) After a brief elevator-set overture, introducing a mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) and the cop he becomes obsessed with blowing up (Keanu Reeves), we’re trapped with Annie (Sandra Bullock) and her fellow passengers aboard L.A. Metro Bus 2525, which will explode if it drops below 50 miles per hour.  

That 50 MPH boundary is in theory the justification for the title — one of Speed's great visual ironies is turning a clunky bus into a high-velocity instrument of destruction. It's one thing to watch a Ferrari tear through the streets of Los Angeles, but the 33 downtown? That is not a vehicle you expect to see catch some air.   

The bus is only one major player in Speed; like many movies from the 1990s, the movie is lush with “Hey, it’s that guy!” moments. In the elevator at the very beginning — Robert Mailhouse, aka J.J. on Sports Night and a bunch of other things! Not to mention that creepy eyebrows guy from all those other things!  

Then, driving the Jaguar commandeered by Keanu on the freeway, is Glenn Plummer, who had a crazy two years from 1994 to 1996 with key supporting roles in Showgirls, Up Close and Personal and Strange Days, making him maybe the most 90s-ish minority actor of all time. 

Inside the bus, the tragically exploded Helen is played by Beth Grant, Hollywood’s premium portrayer of spinsters and cat ladies for the last twenty or so years (ironically, she’s married with a child). And there’s Alan Ruck, eight years post-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — while the role of yokel tourist does not compare to his work as the beautifully aching Cameron, he still manages to find that same stunned pathos in the line “We’re at the airport. I already seen the airport.”  

Then there’s Keanu, not so much playing the daredevil cop the script hints at as he is playing Keanu Reeves on a bus. No matter how stiff he is or how monotone the dialogue comes out, it’s a classic movie star performance — no craft, no character building, but still a masterpiece of furrowed brows and stunt work and getting the girl. And the girl he gets is ever so slightly more than a damsel in distress; I miss this Sandra Bullock, feisty and fun, tough and vulnerable.   

The real unsung star of Speed, though, is the uncredited Joss Whedon, who was (according to the sole credited screenwriter Graham Yost) “responsible for 98.9 percent of the dialogue.”  

The WGA arbitration process that determines who gets their names on the poster is a tough one, pitting writer against writer in a tooth-and-claw battle for the most credit and, as a result, the most money (for another look at this process, read screenwriter Josh Friedman’s very funny tale of the WGA arbitration over War of the Worlds). Whedon got screwed (as much as a for-hire script doctor, knowing full well that this is what happens all the time, can be screwed) but his work on the film is now relatively common knowledge — and considered to be the best part of the film (bus jumping over freeway gap notwithstanding).   

I say it’s the best part of the movie, though Joss Whedon’s style of dialogue does not fare well when directed by non-native English speakers (c.f. Alien Resurrection), and while the Dutch Jan de Bont does his best, many moments feel out of key. The early banter between Keanu and his partner, played by Jeff Daniels, fares the best (due largely to Daniels’ talents and whatever camaraderie existed naturally between them) — exchanges like this… 

Harry: [drunk] Well, I’m gonna go home, have some sex.

Jack: Harry, you’re gonna go home and puke.

Harry: Well that’ll be fun too.  

…represent that classic sort of “show don’t tell” relationship building between bros. For the most part, though, throughout Speed there’s a blunt force to the way a lot of the dialogue is delivered, one that reminds me of Carrie Fisher’s classic George Lucas story about his only two lines of direction: “faster” and “more intense.”  

Oddly, though, that imperfection has over the years become precious to me, like typos in a beloved paperback. Of all the great dialogue in Speed — Sandra Bullock’s half-terrified patter, Dennis Hopper’s epic ranting — my absolute favorite line might be one bus passenger’s brutish exclamation of “Hey, man, I got a wife!” Second favorite line: “I got gum on my seat. Gum.” These are lines that echo in my brain, years later, that I chant along with the film a moment before Ortiz or Annie has a chance to say them on screen. I love them because of their flaws, because they’re ridiculous, because they’re familiar.    

Those moments of dialogue represent the bare minimum of characterization left from the pre-Whedon drafts; according to this AV Club interview with Beth Grant, Whedon’s draft was responsible not just for the film’s memorable dialogue, but a stripping down of character, including the transformation of Helen from a heroic friend of Annie’s to a meek and terrified bomb victim.  

"There was just more backstory for all of us," Grant says. "It was kind of like The Poseidon Adventure, and very wisely, in this case, the studio said, ‘No, let’s just get on the bus and go.’ Joss had done that rewrite, so I teased him about it… He said, ‘Oh yeah, sorry about that.’ And I said, ‘No, thank God, because that’s why it was a hit.’” 

Was it a hit because the characters were reduced to quick quips? Because “Die Hard on a bus” was an easy sell for audiences? Or was it a hit because of Keanu? He’s compelling here in a way that today’s movie-star-wannabes — the Chrises and Ryans and Justins — can’t touch, a pretty face paired with blunt machismo and given free reign to scream profanities when the situation calls for it. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of how much he cares about stopping this bus, saving these people, stopping this psycho that makes him so watchable. Because when he cares, so do we. 

Liz Shannon Miller is a writer and pop culture enthusiast based in Los
Angeles. Surprise surprise, she is on tumblr.

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