ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim LaMotta is one of Pittsburgh’s premiere wrestling announcers, as well as a great writer. This article originally appeared on Steel City Underground. You can follow Jim on Twitter.
The write-ups I did for the site previously usually had a specific theme to them, and it was often a film I watched with my dad in my earlier years. The “Mr. Braddock” classics, movies usually taped off of HBO before digital cable brought so much content on-demand, were a collection of old school movies that I would watch with him. These late-night screenings included A Bronx Tale, Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, or a myriad of other movies from a previous era. I’d sit on the couch with a snack and a can of Coca-Cola, while my dad was in his recliner chair with fancy chocolate that I don’t know how to pronounce the name of and a freshly-brewed cup of coffee. Aside from the fact that he worked the night shift for years before he retired, I still don’t know why he drinks coffee at midnight.
On the flip side, the film I’m going to discuss now is more because of random chance as I found it shown on one of the various HBO channels on a semi-regular basis during recent insomnia.
Speed, the 1994 blockbuster that raked in big bucks at the box office, follows an officer’s pursuit of a bus that was armed with a bomb that would activate after the bus goes above 50 MPH and then explode if it drops below 50 MPH, but how could the narrative of the film be told within just the parameters of the bus?
That was a task for Canadian screenwriter, Graham Yost, who was inspired with the concept based on the 1985 film Runaway Train. Yost, who has an accomplished list of work on his resume within the action genre, also wrote Broken Arrow after the success of Speed, as well as TV projects in more recent years. Yost was paired with Jan De Bont, who made his directorial debut with Speed, and the duo originally pitched the script to Paramount Pictures. De Bont had experience with action flicks, working on numerous projects such as Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October, and an installment of the Lethal Weapon franchise. Initially, it looked like the film would be picked up by Paramount, but the company eventually declined before Twentieth Century Fox green-lit the movie for production in the latter half of 1993.
Aside from a clever screenplay, in retrospect you can see why the movie was such a success, as it brought an all-star cast to the table, even if the majority of their resumes wouldn’t play out until after its release. Yost’s fellow Canadian, Keanu Reeves was cast as the main protagonist, and Speed provides an interesting snapshot of his career. Perhaps, it was because his first hit film was Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where Reeves’ played a dim-witted character, but his delivery of dialogue through the first half of his career was wooden, and there are instances of that in Speed. Still, it’s intriguing to see how he evolved as an actor with the roles in The Matrix, a franchise that spanned a trilogy, and John Wick, a film series that will have its fourth installment next year.
The opening scenes of the film create a sense of suspense that is a theme throughout it, as office workers, seemingly caught up in the rat race of life, jam themselves into an elevator to get away from the stress of work as quickly as possible. In what should’ve been a cramped, but quick ride to the ground floor, the passengers end up trapped when Dennis Hopper’s Howard Payne, a disgruntled former member of the bomb squad, blows up the steel cables that lower the elevator. Intent on vengeance because he was shuffled into retirement after an explosion on the job disfigured his hand, Payne demanded $3 million in cash or he would detonate the emergency brake, sending the elevator crashing down two dozen floors. Hooper, an acting legend that had over five decades in the industry, played the psychopathic Payne perfectly. Payne was crazy, but calculating and that’s what made him so dangerous. He wasn’t a lunatic with an axe, but rather a snake that would patiently wait for the right opportunity to strike, adding another layer of suspense to the film. Maybe Hopper drew on prior life experience for the mindset of this role, as his early career was plagued with serious drug use, and included a bizarre story about his involvement with dynamite during a stunt show. He went to rehab shortly afterwards and eventually continued his legendary career.
Howard Payne, being the maniac that he was, disguised himself as a maintenance man in the freight elevators so that he could listen in for any potential rescue attempts. Reeves’ character, Jack Traven is an ambitious cop that takes the lead on even dangerous situations in the name of what’s right, another trait of a worthy protagonist. Traven is joined by his older and wiser partner, Harry Temple, played by Jeff Daniels. It seems like Daniels’ work in Speed is sometimes unintentionally overlooked because the comedy hit, Dumb and Dumber was released the same year. Obviously, Daniels work alongside Jim Carrey is completely on the other end of the spectrum of the role of a character on the bomb squad so the audience might not realize the depth of Daniels’ role as Temple until it’s reexamined. In many ways, Harry is the word of caution that keeps Traven safe in environments where there’s not much room for error, a dynamic that would be relevant later in the film. Jack and Harry bought some time when they used nearby construction equipment on the roof of the building to attempt to secure the elevator in case the negotiators couldn’t put together the ransom within the time they have left. The heroes didn’t know that Payne could listen in and he detonated the safety lines. The elevator dangles perilously, and the swat team just barely rescues the passengers before the elevator drops to the ground floor. Everyone is saved, but Jack knows something is up and wants to investigate the freight elevators. They find Payne, who is armed with a shotgun and another bomb strapped to his chest. At one point, he takes Harry hostage. Temple tells his pal to “shoot the hostage,” the answer to a hypothetical scenario they causally reviewed earlier when they inspected the building. Traven puts a bullet in Temple’s leg, sending him to the floor, but removing the human shield that protected the villain. With a maniacal laugh, Payne walks through a door and seconds later, an explosion launches Jack into the other side of the wall.
A few weeks later, Harry and Jack are among the offices that are awarded medals of honor for their bravery. Harry, who will be regulated to desk duty because of his injuries, respectfully limps across the stage with a cane to accept the honor. Just when it seems like victory is declared for the good guys, the viewers see someone watching the broadcast of the ceremony on television, clapping with one of their hands mangled. Payne, who the police assumed took his own life with the blast during his attempted escape with Harry hostage, seemed amused that he went under the radar. Unaware that the villain was not only watching, but planning his next move, the police force goes to a bar after the ceremony to celebrate. Joe Morton plays Lt. Mac, who joined his co-workers at the bar, but the joyous occasion is interrupted when Harry explains to Jack how close there were to being killed. Jack emphasized the victory, but with a tone of concern and sincerity, Harry says, “I’m not always going to be there to back you up, guts will get you so far and then it will get you killed” With Temple on desk duty with no idea when or if he will be back in the field again, he expressed concern for his friend. Harry stumbles away drunk, but the evening is considered a success.
The next morning, we find Jack at a local shop getting breakfast and greeting those there. Everyone knows each other and that’s what makes the next plot twist slightly more impactful. As Jack says “see ya later, Bob” before the bus driver goes back to his usual route, he goes to get into his car, narrowly missing the blast as the bus explodes, killing everyone on it. As the flames burst into the sky, a nearby pay phone (remember those?) rings, and Traven is stunned when he hears the voice of the sinister Payne on the line. The bomber informs him of the bus that will be armed when he goes above 50 MPH and detonate if it goes under 50 MPH. The next few scenes provide a tense cat-and-mouse scenario where Traven tried to alert the bus driver on the freeway before it reaches 50 and then the objective instantly switches to tell the driver to stay above 50 MPH. The music throughout these scenes emphasizes the suspense and danger. The music selection was effective, as it won an Academy Award for best sound and best sound editing.
Traven finds his way on by leaping from a moving car and informs the bus driver to stay above 50 before he tries to calmly tell the passengers he’s a cop. One of the riders of the bus thinks Jack is there to arrest him and aims a gun at the officer. When a fellow passenger attempts to help wrestle away the firearm, the bus driver is accidentally shot in the scuffle. Sandra Bullock’s Anne jumped into the driver seat and also the role of one of the main characters, steering the runaway bus back into the middle of the lane on the highway. Ironically, Anne informs Jack that the reason she rode the bus was because her license was temporarily suspended for speeding.
How the narrative takes place with a bus as the main setting was the primary challenge of the film, something that Yost decided to solve with brief, but often cutaways to others within the story. For example, Harry, still a little hungover from the night before, answers Jack’s call at his desk when his partner informs him that the bomber is still alive. While Jack tries to handle the situation on the bus, specifically trying to tell Anne the best way to navigate through traffic, Harry was tasked with trying to find out exactly who the bomber is. Plus, Lt. Mac joins in as a police escort finds the location of the bus and attempts to look for a safe place for the bus to go that would keep it above 50 MPH. Being mindful of his ultimate goal, Howard Payne calls the police and gets the number for the cell phone Jack has with him to set in motion negotiations for a payoff. Traven gets permission from the eccentric bomb to unload the injured driver, but Payne warns against anything else. As the driver is transferred across a panel connected to a police truck, a terrified passenger tries to leave as well. With news helicopters following the incident, Payne sees this and detonates a small bomb under the steps of the bus, sending the woman under the wheels. It was a direct warning that Payne is willing to lose the chance at the money if he has to blow up the bus.
Thankfully, Lt. Mac guides Jack and Anne toward an empty freeway so that traffic won’t be a hurdle. At the same time, Harry makes progress with the search for the identity of the bomber, wondering if the police files are worth a look because the bomber is so proficient with explosives. Jack had a chance to look under the access panel of the bus to get a look at the bomb and was shocked to see the amount of C4 attached to the bus with a gold watch as a timer. As usual, Harry was an advisor for Jack as they were on the phone to discuss the details of the bomb. Temple was able to tell Traven exactly what not to do to set off the explosive, another example of Harry as the word of caution in the film. The shots of Harry at his desk and Traven on the bus not only provide some visual variety, but again emphasize their team effort.
Of course an empty highway wasn’t going to be the solution to the problem, and the police saw that a section of the road was unfinished so the bus would have to make the jump. Scale models were used for some sequences in the film, including some of the elevator shaft shots, but the bus did actually make a jump, even if it wasn’t over an actual gap. If you watch the famous jump scene, the top of the vehicle actually goes out of frame because the production crew didn’t expect the bus to get the height. Anne was able to land the bus, keeping it above 50 and the passengers survived. After the jump, Jack sees quite literally a sign of hope when he realizes they are near the airport and the bus turns toward an empty air strip. The news helicopters couldn’t fly around the airport so it gave the police so room to attempt to disarm the bomb. Running out of time and options, Jack makes a deal with Payne over the phone to allow him to get off the bus temporarily to meet with negotiators. Payne agreed to a brief exit, but assures Traven there are eyes on him, which Jack assumes is another reference to the news choppers. Jack’s actual objective is to try to disarm the bomb, and he uses a sliding board attached to a tow truck to make his way under the bus while it’s still moving on the air strip. Harry is shown frantically flipping through files before he answers the phone to consult with Traven to disarm the explosive. The bomb is wired to explode if it’s tampered with, but thankfully, just as Jack realizes there isn’t a way to get the bomb off the vehicle, Temple gets the news that the bomber is Howard Payne, and the watch on the bomb was Payne’s retirement gift from the police force after his hand was injured. Harry tells his pal to get back to the bus and the swat team would find Payne at his home. Harry, refusing to stay behind, quickly limps out of the office with the rest of the team. As the swat team surrounds the house, Harry quietly makes his way inside, and they carefully look for Payne. As Harry goes into the living room, a smoke alarm beeps, and Harry knows the house was rigged to explode if anyone entered. The house blows up, killing Temple and members of the swat team.
Jack receives a call and expects to hear good news from Harry, but instead it’s Payne to tell Traven that his friend is dead. Always ambitious, Jack finally snaps, violently smashing the dashboard of the bus before he swears vengeance against the bomber. Anne comforts Jack and assures him that they can make it through it. As Traven finally calms down, he realizes that Payne can see the bus and notices the security camera above Anne, which is what the bomber meant when he said their were eyes on Traven. Payne has a feed from the camera to his hideout to keep track of any rescue attempts. Traven gives the information to Lt. Mac, who resourcefully gets a news crew to intercept the signal and record a minute of generic footage so that Payne won’t have access to a live feed of the bus.
Finally, the police can shuffle the passengers onto an airport shuttle bus. Jack and Anne secure the steering wheel and use an access panel to slide to safety, with Jack clutching her to protect her during the slide into traffic cones. The bus dropped below 50 MPH and exploded as it hit an empty airplane.
The day is saved, right?
Not exactly, and Payne was still unaware that he didn’t have a live feed of the bus so he didn’t know it blew up. He contacted police again to inquire about the ransom. A sting is set up with the money placed in a trash can at a corner in the city. Before he goes to collect the cash, Payne notices that his feed isn’t live and improvises to collect the cash. As Anne is getting checked by paramedics, she unknowingly talks to Payne, who is dressed up in his old uniform so he blends into the crowd of officers. Jack, watching from a stake-out position, knows something is wrong and runs toward the trash can to discover that Payne already took the ransom money. Traven tracks the bomb toward the subway system and realizes that he took Anne hostage with a bomb strapped to her. Payne takes Anne on the subway and demands Traven stay behind. Jack eventually jumps onto the top of the subway car to try to rescue Anne. Payne handcuffs her to a subway pole and reveals that he will use the explosion from the bomb strapped to her as a distraction so he can escape with the cash. When Payne hears Jack on the roof, he opens the bag of money and a dye pack sprays ink all over the cash, ruining Payne’s chance to spend it. Furious that his plan to collect the cash is ruined, Payne runs with a gun to confront Traven on the roof of the subway car. A struggle ensues and eventually, the hero pushes Payne’s head into a signal light, beheading the villain. Jack finds Anne and disarms the bomb strapped to her, but doesn’t have the key to uncuff her from the pole. The subway track isn’t finished so Traven decides to speed it up, another sense of irony, and shields Anne again. The train car crashes onto the street, but Jack and Anne are fine. They look, embrace and kiss as the crowd that gathered after the crash applauses the nice moment.
Speed brought in $350 million at the box office with a $30 million budget so it was a major success. That said, the film itself doesn’t really have anything complex or profound, and it didn’t need to contain any of that to be successful. If anything, speed underscores that a simple, well-told story with a talented cast can be very effective. There are simple elements of action, drama, suspense, and a love story that make the film work on a number of levels. Speed wasn’t Casablanca or Gone with the Wind, but it effectively used simple storytelling to be very successful at the box office.