At 23, I took a summer job at the creative writing camp I’d attended as a teenager. The session began with a week of team-building dramas designed to elicit among staff the reciprocal vulnerability we’d require from campers on arrival. My friend Jenny, then a veteran of the residential faculty, described the challenges of governing an artistic community for hot-hearted high schoolers with a mantra c/o Donovan circa 1968: First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
How to explain the enduring personal resonance of this pop wisdom? The aspirational stoicism; the reassuring sense of narrative (first, then, then); the notion that nothing about the anticipation of future ascent precludes the joy of reaching any single summit. Now, as then, I have grace enough to recognize the merit of nonattachment, but not enough to put it into practice, to maintain a safe distance from the feelings inclines raise.
Film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have famously anatomized five principles of Hollywood narrative storytelling as follows: goal-oriented characters, a dual plotline (e.g. work and romance), discrete parts (acts, moves, episodes), the planting of dangling causes for eventual effects (Chekhov’s gun), and deadlines. The idea is that by conforming more or less to these norms, even ostensibly chaotic action films can be seen to demonstrate or approach “a satisfying unity,” a tightness whose pleasures are of a different register than those offered by the digressions and opacities of art cinema.
The perfection of Jan de Bont’s Speed owes not to its exemplification of “classical” Hollywood narrative—though it does do that, as uncannily as Vertigo seems prefabricated to illustrate Laura Mulvey’s male gaze—but to the intensity of its enthusiasmfor those norms. Instead of obedience to a set of tacit rules, we get ecstatic amplification: of character goals, causal logic, and even countdowns, until Speed isn’t a movie formed by classical principles so much as it is about them, recruiting every image, every instant to its dream of coherence.
Put differently: if Speed is the cinematic equivalent of Donovan’s erratic mountain, proliferating obstacles for Keanu Reeves’s Zen LAPD officer Jack Traven to overcome, then I’m Sandra Bullock’s Annie, hunched behind a steering wheel and prone in the dirt, twice asked by Jack if she’s okay, twice letting tears go in her mouth as she shakes her head no.
2. Right Back Where We Started
Bomber Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) holds a full elevator hostage for $3 million. SWAT officers descend, with gum-snapping Jack and partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) among them, to save the passengers. They do that. They discover Payne onsite and Jack shoots Harry in the course of confrontation. Payne appears—unseen—to die in a self-detonated explosion, but the movie has just started; off-screen appearance is an illusion. Seeking revenge for his thwarted payout, Payne bombs a bus in Santa Monica and holds a second hostage. Jack must find the bus, board the bus, maintain the bus’s speed to prevent detonation, and secure Payne’s ransom. Meanwhile: the driver is shot by a fearful passenger and must be unloaded. Newly appointed driver Annie must negotiate LA congestion. Passengers have to leverage their cumulative body weight to prevent the bus from tipping on a hairpin turn. And, in the film’s most iconic set piece, Annie is tasked with propelling the bus over a 50-foot gap in the freeway. Even after they’ve survived the unsurvivable jump, they still have to overcome a fuel shortage, intercept Payne’s surveillance, and free the remaining passengers, with Jack and Annie bodysurfing a liberated access panel from the bus’ assured blast.
This concludes act two.
Speed presents two parallel, simultaneous experiences: one of propulsion, where the relentless emergence of new challenges is exhausting and laughable, and characters are conversely pushed to the limits of their endurance and yanked back from literal and emotional ledges. Then, one of perpetual returns, the incantatory effect of which far outstrips the glib pleasure of a conventional callback. Dialogue repeats, jokes repeat, entire plot events echo. We have three distinct hostage situations on three forms of public transit—the elevator, the bus, and finally Annie on a subway car—each of which occasions revisiting Harry’s original “pop quiz:” “Airport, gunman with a hostage. He’s using her for cover. He’s almost to a plane. You’re 100 feet away.” Jack’s answer becomes the film’s tagline: Shoot the hostage. Under what conditions can you shoot the hostage? How does the double plotline entwining love and work converge in the figure of the unshootable hostage? How many times can the last passenger to be rescued hesitate and nearly die? How dependably can delayed construction leave vital roads unbuilt?
Seen one way, the repetitions of Speed are incessant to the point of arbitrary, an unspecific here-we-go-again within the film—see above—but also beyond it, insofar as the script was initially critiqued for its likeness to Die Hard, shot by de Bont. But we might remember de Bont shot Basic Instinct, too: that blessed polyester emulation of Vertigo,whose mode of repetition partakes in and perverts the earlier film’s pathological affection for spirals and, aptly, resemblance.
From here, there’s an all-encompassing elegance to the unity of Speed that the film itself acknowledges. When Jack swivels from the Santa Monica explosion to the trill of a nearby payphone, we watch flames dance in the phones’ chrome facing: the bomb is calling. Elsewhere, attentiveness to mise-en-scène isn’t just theatrical, it’s diegetically instrumental, as when Jack puts together Payne’s nickname for Annie with the logo on her college sweatshirt, or when Payne catches on to Jack’s bus surveillance workaround by watching a handbag flicker in and out of a passenger’s hands. In the film’s final act, Jack follows Payne and kidnapped-Annie into the L.A. underground. “Harry would be very disappointed,” Payne crows, “We’re right back where we started!”—and so we are, in the pop quiz triangulation of hostage, bomber, and cop.
3. A Cheap Gold Watch
You can’t tell me Jack Traven doesn’t come from a dimension in which Point Break’s Johnny Utah comes up sputtering, shaves his beach hair, and replaces his badge, the residual take-your-time Cali drawl still flattening his mans and ma’ams. We have Joss Whedon’s dialogue ministrations to thank for Jack’s earnestness, but the execution is pure Keanu, owing to star qualities (his “odd blankness,” exuding “affability but dim wit”) that Angelica Jade Bastién has catalogued at length. When Jack says, “Reach out and take my hand,” you want to. When he bellows, Come on, you comply. As if basing his performance on the bombs in question, Keanu presents a powerfully endearing composite of ease and tension, stillness and kinetic potential.
Yet the longer I’ve written Speed into film analysis syllabi, the more I root for Payne to win. “Don’t fuck with daddy,” he admonishes in the opening, before remote detonating a warning blast. By the time we see Payne’s downtown lair, he’s less “daddy” than dad—as in, dad jokes told to no one, dad bod buttoned into high-waisted pants, old football games on 13-inch TV screens, and an inexplicable mannequin modeling his old uniform. He presides over monitors of news coverage like the puffed up owner of an ant farm. He toasts Jack’s image with a fresh bottled Coke, the surrounding army of labeled empties serving as silent reminder that wholesomeness and extreme violence aren’t mutually exclusive.
On the whole, Speed does a lot to resist self-seriousness, and Payne’s one-liners and cartoony outbursts help to keep it light—up until Payne appears on the sidewalk, clear in broad daylight and shallow depth of field, and we realize, for all its corniness, Speed has the wherewithal to make its terrorist a lone, white retiree in a police uniform. On the mannequin, the costume winks, confirming what Harry will eventually learn (that Payne’s inside, a former bomb specialist forced by injury into early retirement). On the street, there’s nothing laughable about what a badge and uniform convey and enable.
A “tiny pension and a cheap gold watch:” the latter acts as everything from a joke between colleagues, to a bomb timer, to a theory of ontological failure. Between Payne and Jack—so, for cops past and present—the fatal error, again and again, is in trusting institutions to fulfill their contracts, to make good on what’s promised by the maps.
“A bomb is made to explode. That’s its meaning, its purpose. Your life is empty because you spend it trying to stop the bomb from becoming.” This is, Howard says, the beauty of it.
In their essay on “Becoming”—“Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…,” which starts, incidentally, with a short reading of Daniel Mann’s Willard—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discusses a process unconstrained by teleology or outcome:
A becoming is not a correspondence between relations. But neither is it a resemblance, an imitation, or, at the limit, an identification […] To become is not to progress or regress along a series […] Becoming produces nothing other than itself. We fall into a false alternative if we say that you either imitate or you are. What is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes.
Likely this is a little heady for Payne. But it feels significant that we begin the film’s final action sequence in contemplation of the bomb as becoming—maybe, to borrow the hyphenate, becoming-bomb. In respecting the bomb’s becoming, Payne valorizes inviolable purpose. There’s something noble in the purity of the bomb’s intention, something aesthetic in its actualization of design.
Payne doesn’t survive to see the concluding repetitions. The track once again unfinished and the forced acceleration, predictable as a recurring dream. In the film’s most intense image of hopelessness, Annie sets her jaw to keep from crying as Jack slowly confesses he doesn’t have the keys to uncuff her from the subway pole. Tethered, she sinks to the car floor. Jack takes a seat across from her, studying her face until she lifts her wrists to reset them around his neck.
What’s more affecting: the happy ending in which the train runs off track, snaps in half, plows through an ironic palm-emblazoned construction barrier, and gently T-bones a celebrity tour van? Or that a flute theme lets me feel Annie’s preparedness to die, no matter how many times I’ve seen what happens next? With Howard decapitated and Annie uncuffed—and the score and camera lifting up and away—and the tourists softly snapping pictures, mistaking the accident for a stunt—Speed ties off every loose end. The film about film ends up looking like a film.