Speed is efficient, fat-free American action filmmaking at its best. It is so lean, that those with an analytical bent can barely get a hook into it. You prod and poke and try to gain a foothold, but it is so lithe, that it almost defies criticism, first because it is so popular no one cares to know any more about it or be swayed to admire it, and second because it is so streamlined and knows itself so well that it doesn't seem to need any help.
You do know the story of Speed don't you? If not, here it is. One morning after a meeting a group of vaguely yuppie business people get on an elevator in Los Angeles, and the next thing they know the car is stalled between floors. What they don't know is that a madman named Howard Payne (Payne, get it?), played by Dennis Hopper, and whom we met at the start of the film, has rigged the elevator with a bomb. He is holding it ransom for some three million dollars. On to the scene comes SWAT team members Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and his senior partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels). They manage to outwit and thwart Payne, and both think he's dead.
But he's not. He's got an even better scheme this time (it's not clear when "this time" actually is, whether a few weeks, or a year later). He's rigged a bus to activate a hidden bomb when it travels over 50 miles an hour. If it then falls under 50 miles an hour, the bomb is detonated. Payne wants Traven to know about this set-up, so as to best him in their second round. The whole middle section of the film concerns the events on and around the bus. There Jack meets Annie (Sandra Bullock, in a career making role), who ends up having to sub for the original driver.
One of the frequently mentioned cool things about Speed is that once this segment ends, the movie has a whole other segment up its sleeve. This involves yet another mode of transportation, a subway, but one mustn't say any more about this on the off chance that the viewer really hasn't seen Speed or knows much of anything about it.
Suffice it to say that if you are in the mood for it, Speed is a wild ride. It seems to have minimal plot, but in fact it has a lot of story in it—it's just that the plot is so tightly hewn to the action that the film just feels like a rush.
Speed is directed by Jan De Bont, veteran DP of numerous '80s action films, from a script credited to Graham Yost, who had done a couple of actioners himself. It's made by people who really like movie movies; this isn't Ingmar Bergman. But that doesn't mean that it lacks some thematic interest.
It's curious that a lot of what Jack Traven's character does is wrong. Though a lot of his suggestions work (driving over the gap in the bridge), most of them get everybody else in trouble (finding Payne hiding in an elevator). The film is making an interesting contrast between callow youth and seasoned professionalism, represented by Daniels, and their boss Joe Morton. The thrust of the film is that Jack Traven must inherit the mantle of professionalism from Harry Temple at the moment that he makes a terrible mistake. From that point on, Jack can be fooled, but he is never wrong.
VIDEO: Fox seems to do a fantastic job with its huge hit, which has appeared on laser disc, was released once before on DVD in 1998 in a bare bones package with fewer sound options, and also came out in a controversial Region 2 disc. Now it enjoys a two disc set release. On disc one, the wide screen (2.35:1) image, enhanced for wide screen televisions, is sharp and bright, with no detectably obvious flaws to the amateur eyes.
It must be hell shooting the film of a former cinematographer, but Andrzej Bartkowiak does a fabulous job, and despite what is a special effects and stunt heavy film, manages to frame the film in exactly the way we would want to see what was happening if we had the choice, no small achievement, as it makes the DP in effect invisible.
SOUND: Well, what do you want out of a film that is all action, music, and effects noise? It's all here, whether you prefer to get it in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or DTS 5.1, both with excellent surounds, and conveying well the propelling musical score by Mark Mancina, without obscuring the dialogue, which, believe it or not, is important, and is often ironically clever. The international viewer also has DD Surround in French. The disc also offers English and Spanish subtitles.
MENUS: On the first disc, after what amounts to a trailer for itself, we finally get the menu, which is animated, and with a musical background. The menus use that LED typeface, which is hard to read, and the transitions from one menu to another are overlong. Also, menu traveling seemed a little slow on my old Toshiba SD-1200. The disc offers 32 chapter scene selection for the 115 minute movie.
PACKAGING: A gray folding plastic digipak keep case holds two discs under cover art that comes in the holograph style that is somewhat hard to read. The label on the first disc shows Reeves running; the second shows Bullock driving.
EXTRAS: If you love Speed, you're going to spend a lot of time with this set, because the extras are abundant.
Disc One: Director Jan De Bont Audio Track The lead off audio track is something of a disappointment. De Bont is good at explaining the technical hardships he went through, but it's something of a cold, impersonal account of what happened, and he slips into the usual great to work with so and so blather that wastes so much space on so many discs.
Disc One: Graham Yost - Mark Gordon Audio Track The two old friends, who have worked together on several films, talk over each other at first, and seem more intent on ribbing the film about its logical foundation, but eventually settle down into actually talking about the movie at hand. Later on they sober up and discuss the 911 incidents (the track was recorded in November of 2001). You do learn a lot about alternative versions of the film: the minor character named Norwood (Richard Lineback), the assistant to Joe Morton character, was originally going to be the real villain. Also, one studio demanded inclusion of the final subway scene and then dropped the film. Halle Berry and Ellen DeGeneres were both considered for Sandra Bullock's part. Gordon admits to an obsession with Reeves's gum chewing at the start, but now admits that it works. Yost sounds weirdly like Tom Hanks, and then you learn that the Canadian screenwriter has actually worked with the actor on several projects. You can't often say this, but its a yak track you're likely to listen to more than once.
Disc Two: Extended Scenes There are five extended scenes, and they add just a little bit of coloring to the minor characters. The first scene has Jack shooting Howard Payne in the neck after he drops Temple. This is eradicated in the finished film. The second scene is a longer version of the party scene, with Temple jokingly trying to pick up one of his co-workers. The third scene has an extended chat between Annie and Helen (the one bus passenger who dies), that reveals her as a waitress waiting for her break. The next sequence shows the aftermath of Helen's death in more detail, and with more chat between Jack and Annie. Finally, in the last extension, one minor character asks another why he pulled a gun (early in the film) in the first place. Altogether, the footage lasts about 11 minutes. Deleted scenes are among the most popular items on DVDs, and those these don't add too much, it's still nice to see some of the hard choices the editors had to make to pare down an already fat free item.
Disc Two: Action Sequences Numerous little mini-docs describe how the film was made. I would suggest watching these only if you are a film student. Otherwise they sort of spoil the illusion of reality. "Bus Jump" is a nine minute explication of the film's signature moment, with comments by stunt co-ordinator Gary Hymes. "Metrorail Crash" accounts for the climax in six minutes. There is also a feature called "Multi-Stream Storyboards," showing the art work of Giacomo Ghiazza, and these include "Bomb on Bus," "Bus Jump," Metrorail Fight and Crash," all viewable with or without screen comparison, and "Baker Sequence," which was never filmed. This last comes with optional commentary by De Bont. "Multi-Angle Stunts" offers the footage from all the cameras for four sequences, the bus jump (eight cameras), the cargo jet explosion (eight cameras), the fight between Jack and Payne (three cameras), and the metrorail crash (eight cameras). You can view them all at once, or one at a time, or flip among them via multi-angle.
Disc Two: Inside Speed "On Location" is seven minutes worth of typically worthless making of footage. "Stunts" is a 12 minute documentary about the stunt men and drivers, with new interviews with stunt co-ordinator Gary Hymes. "Visual Effects" is a nine minute account of the mostly invisible special effects that enhance the film. One of my favorite features is the Original Screenplay, which takes up 267 screens and differs a little bit from the finished version. I wish more discs would add the screenplay right on the disc, rather than skipping it or making it accessible only via DVD-ROM. "Production Design" is extensive text by Jack DeGovia, illustrated with accessible images that goes into a great amount of detail about how the film was made, probably the most informative feature on the disc. It lasts about 40 screens and has about 30 images.
Disc Two: Interview Archive This is raw footage for the HBO First Look doc. There are four little segments with Keanu Reeves that last about five minutes; Sandra Bullock, six segments, nine minutes; Jeff Daniels (who apparently hated working on the film), five segments, six minutes; Dennis Hopper, six topics, four minutes; and Jan De Bont, three topics, four minutes, but taped much later, for this disc. The only interesting thing is that during the Reeves interview Bullock shows up and jokily throws herself on her co-star. Bullock comes across as very natural and authentic in her chat.
Disc Two: Image Gallery This is a wealth of stills, in the following categories: Cast and Crew, Downtown Elevator Shaft, Commendations, Santa Monica Morning, Bomb on Bus, Streets of Los Angles, Freeway part 1, Bus Jump, Freeway part 2, LAPD and Payne's lair LAX, Downtown Pershing Square, and Metrorail.
Disc Two: Promotion "Trailer and TV Spots" offers 11 30-second spots, plus the brilliant trailer, which kept the secret of the last sequence as best it could. Also on hand is the "HBO First Look: The Making of Speed," which is 24 minutes, and is hosted by Hopper. The music video with Billy Idol, which is four minutes long, is something you probably don't remember. Also on hand is the press kit and production notes, the stuff critics have to look at, which takes up 18 screens.
Final Thoughts: Whew! Speed is a great piece of American filmmaking packaged well with this wealth of supplements.