Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and more experienced Harry (Jeff Daniels) are a pair of hotshot LAPD cops. The guys who arrive to the crime scene with the screech of last second brakes and accompanying sparks. There the guys who rock up saying “What’s going on inside?”, then rush in headlong before someone gets to answer.
It is after such a scenario ends with the almost inadvertent circumventing of what might be a serious crime, that Jack finds his first nemesis in Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), a grizzled older man with a loose wire, a deformed hand and a warped sense of justice. Payne’s preferred means of mischief is explosives, and when Jack and Harry thwart his attempt to murder a bunch of random people in an elevator, Howard takes it real personal.
Not for long though – as Howard is apparently killed on the scene in an explosion that leaves Harry on crutches and Jack shaking his head and no doubt saying ‘Whoah”… thankfully the film doesn’t play us for total suckers, as Howard reappears alive and kicking only a few moments later.
And here’s where silly gets real implausible. Howard lays an elaborate trap for Jack. First, he guesses the exact coffee shop that Jack will be frequenting at the exact time, then remote detonates a bomb on a bus going past at the exactly appropriate time. That would be hard for professionals training for months, harder still to assume that Jack would answer the first payphone ringing near the scene of the explosion.
Given what follows that’s hardly the most unlikely event on the schedule for today. During the brief phone call, Howard tells Jack that another bus – this one loaded with early morning passengers – has been booby trapped with enough explosives… well enough to blow up a bus I guess. The bomb is triggered to go ‘live’ at a certain rate of acceleration, and then to detonate when the pace slows to a certain speed.
Of course Jack manages to get aboard, a process not without incident, and inform all the wide eyed passengers of the fun they are about to have. With the bus driver wounded in the process a spunky young woman Annie (Sandra Bullock) takes the wheel and proceeds to travel at speeds rarely hit even on deserted highways in the middle of the night without apparently being subjected to the rigours of gravity or the inconvenience of the laws of physics, which clearly should dictate that a large object should decelerate each time it collides with another vehicle, which is with exceeding frequency here.
The logic errors don’t end there. A young thug is initially overpowered and handcuffed to prevent him from killing everyone, then later he is seen free and cheering inanely with the rest of the idiots.
But this isn’t a film all too concerned with the parameters of logic and plausibility, and for mindless entertainment it performs well. If you only ignore the obvious continuity errors the film develops tension nicely, and I must admit that the end ‘finishing quip’ remains a guilty pleasure 20 years on.
Keanu proves a capable action hero. Bullock somehow found a career on the strength of her performance here, and Dennis Hopper reignited his career for a short while on the basis that so long as he played slightly off the wall types he could be believable. Probably on account of his being slightly off the wall in real life. Of course this all ended abruptly when Kevin Costner convinced him of the merits of being the villain in Waterworld, then he followed that with a career killing role in Super Mario Bros.
I might have liked it more if – after a 100 foot ‘jump’ performed by a bus over an unfinished bridge with no ramps – Annie and Jack exchanged knowing “well this is all very silly” looks a la the immortal Blues Brothers. There was a film that was just as likely as this one, but it knew damn well it was silly.
Speed endures because of the immediacy of the concept – bus goes fast or we die. It is best viewed by people struggling against inevitable sleep, as things make more sense when most of your synapses aren’t firing and your eyes are glazed over. Or just maybe ‘speed’ is what you need to make this all fall into place. Don’t do drugs.
Final Rating – 7 / 10. Works best when the bus is moving fast and the thought put into just how realistic all this seems, is kept low.