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20 Years Later: Speed Still Reigns Supreme

Twenty years ago today, the most important action movie of the 90s was released in theatres. Many titles get thrown around in the perennial debate over which film elevated and defined the genre during a decade that included James Cameron‘s superior sequel to The Terminator and The Wachowski Siblings‘ revolutionary The Matrix. The 90s also produced a surfeit of trash that still deserves to be classified as canonical work: from the satirical camp of Demolition Man (1 in a series of 3 films — Drop Zone and Money Train, to complete the troika—that solidified Wesley Snipes as a bonafide action star) to Michael Bay‘s The Rock (which might be the most aptly named movie of the 90s, as it accurately describes Bay’s hard-on for explosions and American flags).

However, none of those classics are touching the seminal 90s summer blockbuster known as Speed. Take my hand as I guide you back to 1994, unpacking what makes Speed so damn special while callously re-reminding you (and myself) that we are officially old as shit.

Directed by Die Hard (the greatest action movie of ALL TIME, but I’ll save that for another thinkpiece) cinematographer Jan de Bont and co-written by modern day geek overlord Joss Whedon (called in to punch-up the script but was uncredited due to sketchy Writers Guild statutes), Speed finds Keanu Reeves‘ LAPD bomb specialist Jack Traven caught in a vicious game of cat-and-mouse with domestic terrorist Howard Payne, played to perfection by America’s favorite psycho, Dennis Hopper.

Let’s pause briefly just to note how badass of name JACK TRAVEN is. Way more badass sounding than John McClane. I’m just saying.

You already know the plot, so I’ll make this quick: Traven thwarts one of Payne’s attempts at massive ransom procurement via a hostage situation. Payne decides to make it personal. Traven finds himself on a speeding city bus, full of passengers, that has been rigged to detonate if the speedometer clocks in anything under 50mph.

And thus the stage is set for a kinetic thrill ride that kept elder action junkies on the edge of their seats, and 9 year old boys like this author marveling at the sheer spectacle that movies could create.

And to be clear, I was 7 when Speed hit theaters, so I can’t sit here and front like I saw it its opening year. My parents had more sense than that. (If you’re reading this: Thanks, mom and dad!). I actually snuck and watched it on VHS during a sleepover at a friend’s house when I was 9. The words “fuck” and “prick” to be forever entrenched in my lexicon because of it (If you’re reading this: Sorry, mom and dad!).

But what confirms Speed’s pole position amongst 90s action movies, was how un-80s action movies it was. In the 80s, the classic action flicks were laced with ulterior, sometimes didactic, agendas. Lethal Weapon touched on the Reagan era drug epidemic, as well as residual Vietnam War disillusionment in Mel Gibson’s Riggs character. Die Hard had that good old jingoistic, American-cowboy-kills-the-Commies tunnel vision (It isn’t by mistake that John McClane rhymes with John Wayne). And Top Gun was just a Tony Scott directed Navy recruitment tape (and possibly the first pro-gay military movie, but I’ll save that for another thinkpiece). But not Speed. Speed was a standalone adventure with no hidden politics or moral posturing. Just fast paced directing, unprecedented sound editing (that snagged 2 Academy Awards), riveting action sequences, and two perfectly casted partners who would rise to the occasion to save the day. That brings me to my next point…

The chemistry between stoic LAPD bomb expert Keanu Reeves and “just your average civilian in the right place at the wrong time” Annie Porter, played by Sandra Bullock, was palpable and believable, even when facing imminent death. And Bullock needs to be saluted for transforming Annie into a fully fleshed out female character, not some helpless damsel in distress totally reliant on the macho man to rescue her. Annie had complete agency, and she stepped up to the plate (or in this case, the steering wheel) to mitigate Traven’s hot head with her cool one, and navigated the vessel that determined the fate of everyone on board. And after a decade of the male dominated buddy-cop trope (re: Riggs & Murtaugh. Hammond & Cates. Turner & Hooch), it was refreshing to see a courageous female lead carry as much weight as the male lead.

The final ingredient that separates Speed from the rest of the action herd is just that: the action. Compared to the massive-in-scale action movies released before Speed, chiefly the sci-fi thrillers like 1990’s Total Recall, 1991’s Terminator 2, and 1993’s Demolition Man that took full advantage of emerging SFX technologies, Speed did the exact opposite, relying on deft cinematography and brilliantly choreographed action pieces to thrust a sense of realism that hit hard and visceral. That iconic bus jump over the disconnected freeway. That intense escape from the bus on the access hatch as it whipped across the pavement. Even the final showdown between Traven and Payne atop the subway car. It was grounded in a reality I had never seen portrayed on film before; adding more gravity was how it visualized real life urban terrorism. But in the most fun way possible!

So there you have it. Speed injected fun, originality, high octane thrills, a great cast and a human element into what would be the blueprint for the next 5 years of 90s action flicks. True Lies, Face/Off, Con Air and Air Force One would all borrow from the Speed formula, but to much more cartoonish results. And while I personally prefer Reeves other 90s vehicle Point Break from 1991 (Katherine Bigelow‘s magnum opus, if I’m just keeping it funky), its fingerprint can’t be traced on too many subsequent films like Speed’s can. Speed set the bar for what it meant to be an action film in the 90s, that is until The Matrix (Reeves again!) came along in 1999 and made sure every movie of the new century would be about our computers killing us in the inevitable dystopian future.

Wow, Keeanu Reeves really was the king of action films during the 1990s (I’ll save that for another thinkpiece).

Erik Abriss

Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles. He knew when he was voted "Adam Sandler Look-Alike" for his 7th grade yearbook superlatives his movie nerd personality was solidified. Follow him on twitter (@Jew_Chainz) for more incendiary views on all things film. Goonies never say die!