The High-Concept Humanity of Speed

20th Century Fox

On paper, Jack Traven is a bit of a square. He can be impulsive at times, sure, but it’s always in the name of good. It’s never born out of hotheaded recklessness or self-destruction. He doesn’t have anger issues or a problem with authority. He’s a man with no discernible vices, and we’re given precious little in the way of his backstory. Like every character in Speed, director Jan De Bont’s debut feature, Jack Traven is not a complicated individual. His motivations remain straightforward and unambiguous, and he undergoes no major changes throughout the film. He’s a dedicated LAPD officer who just wants to do his job and save lives, to protect and to serve. If we’re being completely honest, Jack is nothing more than a byproduct of a specific kind of Hollywood movie: the high-concept film. These are projects designed to be easily, conveniently pitched and sold in a simple phrase or sentence. They’re the types of movies where you can learn everything you need to know about them just by looking at their posters. High-concept films are often derided—rightly—for their lack of nuance and subtlety, for the absence of interesting characters and originality, for their profit-driven and market-tested plotlines. The only goal of these movies is to appeal to as many people in as many places around the world as possible.

Speed is the apotheosis of the high-concept film. It’s not especially original, it’s definitely not subtle, and it’s spectacularly unconcerned with any events beyond what’s happening moment to moment. The screenplay, written by Graham Yost (and an uncredited Joss Whedon), does the bare minimum in terms of fleshing out the narrative beyond its one-sentence premise—a madman has rigged a bus to explode if it drops below 50 mph—but there are few films as thin on character and story as Speed that are also as sensationally entertaining. It’s a film that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and I don’t mean that as faint praise. It’s as durable as just about any celebrated film of its era, action or otherwise, and a model of efficiency, blessedly free of the type of hackneyed melodrama that was so often a cheap stand-in for emotional depth in lesser action movies of the day. Twenty-three years after its release, Speed remains as thrilling as ever.

Great movies are minor miracles. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie, of course, but throughout all phases of development and production, from a film’s inception to its exhibition, the days, weeks, months, and years are fraught with opportunities for compromise, miscalculation, and imprecision. There will always be a certain amount of alchemy involved, too, as finding that perfect alignment of talent, material, and timing can be frustrating and elusive. Those forces create the ripple effects, large and small, that ultimately make or break every film. The wrong director or a miscast actor can do irreparable harm even to the best screenplay. In some alternate cinematic multiverse, there exist dozens of unrecognizable versions of most of your favorite movies.

Speed is no different, and the “what if” scenarios abound. It was written in 1991 and originally set up at Paramount, where it was later sent into turnaround. Every major action filmmaker (John McTiernan, Walter Hill, Renny Harlin, John Badham, Ridley Scott) was approached to direct, but they all declined. At one point, Variety reported that Barry Levinson was in consideration for the job. The script eventually found its way to Jan De Bont, the top-notch Dutch cinematographer of Die Hard, Black Rain, The Hunt for Red October, and Lethal Weapon 3. De Bont had been looking to make the transition into directing and had his sights set on Drop Zone, a sky-diving action picture also set up at Paramount. But after the studio figured they couldn’t attract A-list talent without an A-list director, De Bont was forced to rebound, and he shifted his attention to Speed instead.

The role of Jack Traven is said to have been offered to just about every young actor in Hollywood, from proven box-office heavyweights like Tom Cruise, to quirkier choices like Johnny Depp, and truly head-scratching alternatives like Stephen Baldwin and Richard Grieco. They all turned it down. Keanu Reeves finally signed on, but not before Joss Whedon was brought in to rework and streamline the plotting and do a major polish on the dialogue. Casting director Risa Bramon Garcia is rumored to have “nagged” De Bont until he hired Sandra Bullock for the role of Annie Porter, the passenger tasked with driving the runaway bus after the original driver becomes incapacitated; Ellen DeGeneres and Halle Berry were also suggested or considered for the part. Still, had 20th Century Fox not rescued Yost’s original script from turnaround and then fast-tracked it for a 1994 release, there’s a very strong possibility that Speed would have never been made at all, as TriStar had its own “Die Hard on a bus” movie in development at the same time. That project, called The Number Four, had Forest Whitaker attached to direct and casting was already underway. But Speed began filming before The Number Four, and the latter script was never produced. If those fates had been reversed, had the production of Speed been delayed for any reason, you probably wouldn’t be reading this essay right now.

The packaging of Speed—that is, Mark Gordon producing; Graham Yost and Joss Whedon writing; Jan De Bont directing; Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock starring—was absolutely crucial to its success, both commercially and creatively. It’s an indelible piece of modern American cinema, and if you tweak any one of its ingredients the entire recipe is changed. It’s as difficult for me to imagine a Barry Levinson-directed Speed as it is for me to picture Johnny Depp wearing a SWAT vest and lowering himself onto a mechanic’s dolly so that he can ride underneath a moving bus to dismantle a bomb. It’s not that Levinson or Depp aren’t capable artists, but rather that their involvement would have fundamentally altered the DNA of the movie. And I have an equally hard time believing Speed would be anywhere near as good as it is had it been made any later in the careers of its actual above-the-line participants. I’m not willing to call the film brilliant or perfect or a masterpiece—there’s some dialogue that makes me cringe, and the climax is a little lazy—but there is something remarkable about the way its earnestness transcends its preposterousness. It’s partly that intense conviction that helps launch a 15-ton bus over a 50-foot freeway gap, but I also believe it’s the direct result of this young team, this unique combination of creative forces, working together without the burden of heightened expectations, and motivated by a genuine desire to make their mark on the industry.

Fox had only modest hopes for Speed at first, scheduling it for release in August 1994. Its $30-million budget was nothing compared to that of True Lies (reportedly between $100 million and $120 million) or even Baby’s Day Out ($48 million), the studio’s two other big investments that summer. However, impressed by the positive reactions of test audiences, Fox eventually gave Speed a much more enviable June 10 release date. I don’t know if its cast and crew knew they had a hit on their hands while they were making the film, but those involved definitely had reason to double down on their commitment. It was Gordon’s first solo production, after partnering on a string of forgettable movies he once referred to as “moderate failures” to the Los Angeles Times. It was Yost’s first feature screenplay credit (and would have been Whedon’s first, as well, had he not lost his arbitration bid with the Writers Guild.) It was De Bont’s first shot at establishing himself as a director to be taken seriously, which is not always a successful transition, even for the most acclaimed cinematographers (see Gordon Willis, Janusz Kaminski, Wally Pfister). And it was Bullock’s first opportunity to have significant footing alongside her male costars in a major studio movie. (True, she had a sizable part in Demolition Man the year before, but that role was more of an arch comic figure, and she wasn’t really given a chance to be Sylvester Stallone’s equal.)

Which brings me back to the character of Jack Traven and the casting of Keanu Reeves. Speed owes an undeniable debt to Die Hard, John McTiernan’s fantastic 1988 paradigm-shifting thriller that jump-started the trend of the location-specific action film. Replace Nakatomi Plazathe Los Angeles skyscraper in which off-duty police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) battles terrorists, saves hostages, and delivers perfectly-timed quipswith a U.S. battleship or a passenger jumbo jet or the Rocky Mountains, and you instantly have the plotlines of three successful action movies that were all made and released in the wake of McTiernan’s film. In the eyes of just about everyone, Speed was going to be yet another tired riff on the Die Hard formula, another one of those movies. That’s part of the reason Reeves was initially reluctant to sign on. “The character [of Jack Traven] was very flippant,” he told Entertainment Weekly shortly after Speed was released. “There were situations set up for one-liners and I felt it was forced—Die Hard mixed with some kind of screwball comedy. I said, ‘I’m not really interested in that. I think we can do better.’”

It’s easy to think of Reeves as an action star, and for good reason. Point Break, Speed, The Matrix trilogy, and the two John Wick movies all have very devoted fan bases, and his place in the action canon is secure. But he never set out to become any kind of action icon. He described working on Speed as “good, clean fun” to Entertainment Weekly in 1994, but admitted variety was his highest ambition. Reeves has never received enough credit for taking risks as an actor. Sure, the results may vary, but behind all of his performances is a fearless artist with an insatiable desire to challenge himself. Don’t forget that between Point Break and Speed, in the span of just three years, Reeves also starred in My Own Private Idaho, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Much Ado About Nothing, and Little Buddha. These are not exactly the career choices of an actor looking to establish his genre bona fides. That none of those characters are remotely alike, that even Johnny Utah in Point Break is distinguishable from Jack Traven in Speed, is a testament to Reeves’ determination to not repeat himself or participate in anything predictable.

But I believe Speed represents more than simply another mercurial career move. Reeves is an actor without pretense; he’s not a performer who wears masks. He’s also an intensely private and guarded public figure who has spent the majority of his professional life fighting to keep his own celebrity at arm’s length. He’d much rather act than be famous. He’d much rather lose himself in a demanding role—to be consumed by a part that might require extensive training, or an accent, or Shakespearean dialogue, or period clothing, or any persona other than his own—than answer questions about his life during endless press junkets. In Speed, however, there’s nothing standing between Reeves and the audience. He’s given himself nothing to hide behind, nothing to deflect our gaze. Even the long hair and scruff are gone. There’s no semblance of the burnouts he had earlier portrayed. Nor does the film play with our preconceived notions of Reeves the way something like Point Break does. In that film, he had to be equally believable in a foot chase as he was delivering lines of dialogue about surfing (“Caught my first tube this morning, sir”). De Bont has suggested that Speed is Reeves’ first true adult character, but I see something more than just a maturing actor. When we look at Jack Traven, we are looking directly at Reeves, and seeing him for the first time. We’re hearing the voice of a character who he helped shape. What Reeves brought to the role was himself; what he brought to the film was an uncommon decency, a relatable vulnerability, and a surprising humanity.

Most screenplays require a certain amount of tailoring based on who is cast in the lead roles, as the presence of some performers can change a scene on even the most granular level. This is as true for action movies, which are rarely thought to be performance-driven, as for any other kind of film. As director Renny Harlin, a highly regarded action filmmaker in the early ‘90s for his work on Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, once explained to the Los Angeles Times, “The tone (for the violence) usually comes with the star, and what works best for them. With Bruce Willis, the best movie winks at you. For Stallone, it’s better if you’re more serious, truly emotional. Action stars seem to have an aura, or an image, that the movie consequently inherits.” When Keanu Reeves was cast in Speed, the entire tenor of the film changed.

He imbues the film with its own striking identity, far removed from the shadow of Bruce Willis’ John McClane. Can you imagine Reeves taking part in the following dialogue exchange?

You won’t hurt me.

Oh, yeah? Why not?

Because you’re a policeman. There are rules for policemen.

Yeah. That’s what my captain keeps telling me.

Can you imagine Reeves uttering the line, “Welcome to the party, pal,” after gaining the attention of a fellow cop by tossing the corpse of that same bad guy through a skyscraper window and onto the officer’s cruiser? I certainly can’t.

Reeves carries with him an innocence that would make these moments seem almost inconceivable. It’s that very quality, however, that made him the ideal actor to play the one teenage delinquent with a conscience in River’s Edge, or the joyously goofy slacker in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s what led Bernardo Bertolucci to cast him as Siddhartha in Little Buddha. It’s why we accept him as a professional hitman seeking revenge for the death of his pet beagle in John Wick. And it’s what helped transform Jack Traven from a “maverick hotshot” into a “polite guy trying not to get anybody killed,” as Whedon later described the character to In Focus magazine. It’s not personal for Jack. He’s not rescuing his wife or his daughter. He’s not plagued with guilt over the senseless death of a friend. He’s not haunted by his past, battling inner demons, or in need of redemption. And, yet, Jack finds himself leaping from the driver’s seat of a commandeered Jaguar convertible and onto a Los Angeles city bus as it careens down the freeway. He may not be a complicated man, but Jack believes in the inherent goodness and dignity of those he’s trying to save. This aspect of the character came directly from Reeves, and that outlook informs the rest of the film.

There are no disposable lives in Speed, and that’s partly by design. There’s only one villain, and he’s a lone wolf. He doesn’t have a team of henchman working for him, which means there’s not a succession of anonymous goons that Jack must fight and kill before the film reaches its climax. That narrative decision alone keeps the body count relatively low. There are also no characters like Ellis (Hart Bochner) or Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) from Die Hard, who technically aren’t villains, but are written to be just sleazy and unlikable enough that the audience doesn’t mind seeing them get shot and killed or punched in the face. No, the only character deserving of any comeuppance in Speed is Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper). Otherwise, collateral damage is kept at a minimum. That’s not to say the film exists in a world without cruelty and death, rather that it’s the rare summer action movie where those things actually carry any real weight. There’s no death in Die Hard, for instance, that stings quite like that of Jack’s partner, Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels), in Speed. Nor is there one that subtly shifts the emotional timbre of the whole movie and raises the emotional stakes like that of bus passenger Helen (Beth Grant). This is more than a little surprising, especially considering the characters in Die Hard are better drawn than those in Speed. Even Yost confesses that his characters are “one-dimensional at best” on his film’s DVD commentary track. If I’m to believe every screenwriting book I’ve ever read, shouldn’t I be less inclined to care about them or relate to them or sympathize with them?

There are many achievements in Speed that are worth singling out: De Bont’s fluid camera direction, John Wright’s taut editing, and Mark Mancina’s propulsive score come to mind. But some of its strengths are less immediately noticeable. I’m not sure I’ve ever praised a film for the minutiae of its casting, for instance, but Speed is a triumph in this department. That begins with the selection of its leading man, obviously, but it extends to every supporting and peripheral character as well. As Jack Traven, Reeves has never been better—he has an unexpectedly shrewd, commanding presence here—and he’s surrounded by likable performers who humanize their one-dimensional characters in a very limited amount of time. Joe Morton and Jeff Daniels lend credibility and integrity to the film. You don’t respond to Captain McMahon or Harry Temple because of their depth, but you do recognize their authenticity. They help ground the movie, a reminder that these men are not indestructible supercops. The “Go Ahead, Make My Day” novelty sign on Harry’s desk is an appropriately knowing piece of art direction; there’s not a trace of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan in any of these officers. Watch the back-to-back scenes that conclude the film’s extended prologue, in which Jack, Harry, and McMahon celebrate the successful rescue of hostages from a booby-trapped elevator. These moments are meant only to provide a brief interlude between action sequences, but they’re marked by a genuine sincerity and poignancy, unusual for this type of movie. There’s a perceptible camaraderie amongst these men. They have a shared history. They trust and care about each other. Whatever character traits or pasts might be missing on the page are wordlessly supplied by the performers on screen. You root for these men without ever knowing them.

Sandra Bullock also keeps the film earthbound. She has the biggest character hurdles to jump over as well. Played too delicate, her underwritten Annie Porter becomes nothing more than a damsel in distress; too flat, and she’s a thankless audience surrogate; too accommodating, and she’s a prize for Jack to win. While Annie indeed becomes Jack’s romantic interest over the course of the film, Bullock is able to make the character his equal: tough, capable, and quick-witted. She earns the audience’s goodwill almost as soon as she’s introduced, running to catch up with the bus she just missed, and then quickly becomes our main point of reference for processing this harrowing experience. If Jack is cool under pressure, then Annie makes it all relatable. We live vicariously through her—not through Jack—when the bus sideswipes rows of cars, or when it plows into that baby stroller full of aluminum cans, or in the moments immediately after Helen’s death. Bullock’s unassuming relatability is vital to the movie. It keeps our engagement from ever becoming one-dimensional.

And then there’s the bus itself. I’m not tritely suggesting that it’s somehow another character, but there is something about the casual accessibility of public transportation that makes Speed a uniquely human action movie. (Tellingly, the film’s two other major setpieces also involve mundane conveyances: an elevator and a subway.) There are sleeker, more cinematic, and far sexier location options for a thriller—why not a luxury cruise liner?—but a bus is an instantly familiar and recognizable symbol of everyday living. If you’ve spent time riding public transportation as an adult, then you know it has a strange way of connecting you to the lives of others, particularly if you see the same faces with any regularity. This connection is almost always unspoken, as it’s rare that you ever engage in meaningful conversation with your fellow travelers. But it often leads to a profound realization—sometimes humbling, sometimes lonely, sometimes comforting. You are part of something much larger than yourself.

Aside from Annie, the passengers of Bus 2525 are mostly nameless characters, but they never seem like anonymous victims. They represent a decent cross section of Los Angeles, and the performers have been chosen with care. (De Bont and cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak know a thing or two about photographing faces, and editor John Wright makes expert use of these closeups throughout the film.) We’re not privy to the individual lives of the passengers prior to meeting them on the bus. We’re never shown scenes of Ortiz (Carlos Carrasco) kissing his wife goodbye before heading to work that morning. We’re spared the humorous lulls in action in which Stephens (Alan Ruck) would snap photos of cheesy tourist attractions. We don’t witness Ray (Daniel Villarreal) stealing the handgun that accidentally wounds the bus driver only a few hours later. Such scenes would have ruined the pacing and momentum, turning Speed into a bloated 1970s disaster film. Nor does the movie need them. As Jack leaps onto that bus, the film has so skillfully generated suspense and tension that the distinction between passenger and audience is blurred. We project ourselves onto them and they become a reflection of us. In that moment, we are all riding the same roller coaster, and we are all connected.