Stop what you’re doing and go watch ‘Speed’
Keanu Reeves is having a moment. That might be a slight to an A-list star who has been doing consistently interesting work since he broke out in 1989 with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But his career is certainly hitting a peak: aside from the massively popular John Wick series, he will provide voice work in Toy Story 4 later this month, and it was recently announced that he will be reprising his breakout role in Bill & Ted Face the Music, set to hit theaters next year.
But the current revitalization of Keanu’s career feels different: like the McConaissance before it, the Keanussance has transcended the films themselves. It’s not just that we love the movies he’s making, it’s that we love him. This particular brand of adulation is evident in the other key performance of the Keanussance, in which the actor plays himself in the Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe. He plays a pretentious, exaggerated version of himself, a genial narcissist with a self-imposed air of mystery. It’s a performance that wouldn’t make any sense if the audience didn’t have an appreciation for the cult of Keanu, and it’s the clearest sign that he has reached a cultural icon status. (Another sign: the fact that I feel like I should refer to him by his first name only.)
Whether or not this moment marks the height of Keanu’s career arc, though, it still doesn’t come close to his best film: Speed, released 25 years ago this week. The premise is devilishly simple, and laid out plainly by the film’s villainous terrorist (Dennis Hopper) to Keanu’s LAPD cop Jack Traven: “There's a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?”
As our greatest action heroes are wont to do, Jack’s answer to this question defies reason and instinct: he gets on the bus in an attempt to keep it running above 50 while trying to defuse the bomb. From the moment Jack is on the bus, Speed is unrelenting. The high stakes of the plot are clear, and the film is a masterclass in tension-building that few action movies have ever matched.
Because the premise is so simple, Speed has room to throw a slew of obstacles at Jack and never lose sight of its central plot. Sometimes these obstacles are external: traffic jams and pedestrians in the crowded city force quick decisions, and at one point the road literally ends. Sometimes they are internal: the eclectic group of passengers, from a stoic, heavyset Latino man named Ortiz (Carlos Carrasco) to an insufferable tourist named Stephens (Alan Ruck), bicker with each other and heighten the emotional claustrophobia.
Sometimes, the obstacles are a combination of the two: when a passenger with a gun accidentally shoots the driver, another passenger, Annie (Sandra Bullock), is forced to take over. Flush with charm and a Midwestern apologeticness, Annie confesses to Jack when she takes the wheel: “I should probably tell you that I'm taking the bus because I had my driver's license revoked.” “What for?”, Jack asks. “Speeding,” she replies, grinning.
Speed is full of lines like this, winking one-liners that invite you to laugh at the film’s delirious stupidity. When Jack goes under the bus, Stephens asks him if he had any luck with the bomb. “Yeah, it didn’t go off,” he replies. As the bus motors on endlessly, waiting out the terrorist’s demand for a multi-million dollar ransom, the bus is adorned with an ad reading “Money isn’t everything (yeah, right).”
In the opening scene, a thrilling elevator rescue, a cop asks if there is anything that could keep an elevator full of people from falling. “Yeah, the basement,” Jack replies, dryly. These lines are cheesy, but they’re also necessary: not only do they give the supporting cast some flavor, but they also serve to undercut the unyielding tension of Speed, so it feels more like a summer romp than a self-serious slog.
Holding it all together is Keanu, without whom Speed wouldn’t work nearly as well. The film is a case study in what makes him such an effective action star. From scene to scene, Jack Traven is always looking for solutions. He’s hyper-focused, but unlike someone like Tom Cruise, he’s never out of control. Keanu splits the tension with a piercing, meditative stare.
He also handles those cheesy one-liners with a grace and enthusiasm that someone like Cruise (whom I consider to be the greatest action star) never could. Keanu is a ham, but never in a way that’s distracting from the film. He’s smart enough to know that when you deliver a line like “yeah, the basement,” you don’t have to do a whole lot of winking at the audience; the writing itself will take care of that. He reads those lines with absolute sincerity.
For some critics these deadpan readings warrant derision, because that’s not how real people talk. Keanu is fun, the line goes, but not necessarily “good.” But how real people talk is entirely beside the point: in the annals of cinema history, our greatest characters rarely sound like real people. I have never once encountered someone with the dainty, whispery voice of Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann, nor the unintelligible drawl of Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone. Characters are characters, not people, and Keanu’s greatness stems from his full embrace of moviedom.
Perhaps what distinguishes Keanu most as an action star is his ability to immediately form a connection with those he shares the screen with. He possesses neither the wily spryness of Cruise nor the brute physicality of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he doesn’t have the obvious swagger of early Bruce Willis. What he does hold over these stars, though, is empathy. The passengers on the bus don’t just respect Jack as an authority figure; he immediately feels like part of their makeshift family. When the passengers get particularly heated, Jack needs only to turn around and bark a firm “Hey!” He hardly raises his voice, but the quarrel dissipates, and you buy it. Perhaps they are obedient because of how collaborative their relationship with Jack is. He respects the passengers enough to entrust them with key tasks, and earns their respect in kind.
These people are undergoing the most terrifying experience of their lives, but Jack’s calming presence allows them to endure, and at times, even experience some sense of unbridled joy. It’s this same emotional capacity that allows Jack to forge a believable romantic connection with Annie, with whom, upon re-watch, he has almost no romantic moments with. But when Jack looks into Annie’s eyes, you feel as if they’ve known each other for years. This is why his guest turn in Always Be My Maybe is so perfect: it identifies what makes him great (extreme emotional connectedness) and heightenes it to the point of self-parody.
Even without Keanu, Speed still coasts on one its ingenious plot line. The film’s thrills are a product of its efficiency; there are no spare parts. It is, for my money, the best pure action movie not named Die Hard. There is always a gap in film criticism between how the movie made you feel while watching it and how well you can convey those emotions in written words, but that gap has never felt greater for me than in writing about Speed. It’s the kind of movie that I just want to scream about how awesome it is; it’s the kind of movie that reviews about should be written in all caps. I can go on about how great Keanu and the plot mechanics are, but really, Speed must be watched to be loved.
Speaking of love: after one particularly heroic moment, Annie remarks to Jack that “relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.” That might be true for Jack and Annie: the regrettable Speed 2: Cruise Control replaced with Reeves with Jason Patric in the role of Annie’s love interest. But thankfully, it is not true of my relationship with Speed. The film is composed almost exclusively of intense circumstances, but 25 years after its release, it is still worth embracing.