Speed (Special Edition) Review
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the average Hollywood action film tended to be a depressingly moronic collection of moments of extreme violence, misogynistic treatment of the token female characters, musclebound ‘heroes’ whose skills of articulation were limited to being able to spit out underwritten one-liners when they dispatched some European villain, and endless explosions. Of course, there were some better-than-usual examples of the genre, such as John McTiernan’s Predator or James Cameron’s work throughout the period, but Speed is unique in that it is one of the very few modern thrillers that combines a thrilling premise (if one rather lacking in the originality some critics claimed for it) with superb action scenes, genuinely witty one-liners and a welcome absence of the misanthropy that tends to ruin films of this sort.
In a classical three-act structure, the film divides itself into three parts, each inspired by a seminal thriller (none of which is Die Hard, a film Speed is often erroneously compared to.) In the first act, Howard Payne (Hopper), a nine-fingered lunatic, holds a lift full of people hostage; before you can say Lift to the Scaffold, heroic cop Jack Traven (Reeves) and his noble sidekick Harry (Daniels) manage to save the day. Unfortunately, Payne is not so easily stopped, and, famously, wires a bus to explode if its speed drops below fifty miles per hour (in what must surely be a reference to Wages of Fear). Thankfully, plucky Annie, a recently banned driver- and, we learn on this DVD- graphic designer- (Bullock) is on board, and she and Jack manage to propel the film towards its supercharged finale, which in turn references Runaway Train.
It’s not difficult to be pretentious about most action films; there’s something about the mind-numbing boredom that would occur if one took every explosion or shoot-out seriously that leads the sophisticated viewer to look for greater irony and meaning in the shallow scripts. However, Speed is one of those remarkably rare films that never descends to simple ‘My gun’s bigger than your gun’ bathos; notably, there isn’t a single shoot-out in the entire film, and an admirably restrained body count means that this never turns into a joyless bloodbath. Instead, De Bont’s assured, pacy direction and Graham Yost’s witty script (which was extensively rewritten by Buffy guru Joss Whedon) ensure that even the most potentially improbable plot developments seem somehow credible, albeit in the heightened context of an environment where it seems more sensible to let a bus cause untold amounts of damage, rather than pay the villain’s ransom demand in the first place.
It helps, of course, that there are some very funny lines; one of the best comes early on, when Payne says, upon being accused of being insane, ‘Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric.’ Hopper’s performance is a complete joy throughout; stealing the show from a tolerably charismatic but wooden Reeves and Bullock (whose perky Everygirl act has now become irritating through endless repetition), he manages to make Payne as enjoyable a scenery-chewing villain as seen on screen since Alan Rickman cancelled Christmas in Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves, bringing to mind his equally ‘colourful’ performance in Blue Velvet as he does so. Even the supporting performances from the likes of Alan Ruck (as an alarmed tourist) and Glenn Plummer (as the unwilling lender of a Jaguar to Jack) are finely judged and very funny, managing to bring genuine comic relief to the mounting tension.
If one has to be critical about the film, it’s ultimately just a thrill ride, without the philosophical dimensions that would have made it an unequivocally great film; of course, it’s hard to think how philosophical a film about a runaway bus could actually have been, and still maintained some sort of credibility. The other criticism levelled at the film is that the finale is just too much unnecessary action; this is halfway justifiable, but the sheer gusto with which it is staged means that it’s absurdly enjoyable when watched in context. Watching the sheer skill with which De Bont orchestrates the action and tension is a constant pleasure, and it’s a shame that his every subsequent work has been progressively worse (although, to be fair, The Haunting was slightly better than Speed 2; then again, it would have taken some skill to have made it worse.) This is undoubtedly one of the most purely enjoyable action films ever made, and a welcome reminder that Arnie-sized muscles and pornographic violence are not always necessary to make a genuinely thrilling experience; perhaps the highest compliment payable to the film is that it’s not impossible to imagine that Hitchcock himself would have enjoyed the homage to the spirit of excitement, wit and genuine fun present in his best work. Recommended.
The second R2 release of this film, there is, at first glance, little real improvement on what was already an excellent transfer. De Bont’s cinematic style ensures that the ‘look’ of his films is fairly similar to that of his mentor, Paul Verhoeven’s- namely, lots of close-ups and a strikingly vivid use of colour- and the 2:35:1 anamorphic presentation does a strong job of keeping this intact, without any print damage or undue softness in the presentation. A very pleasing effort indeed.
The major addition to this edition is a new DTS track, which is absolutely superb; although the film has its fair share of bass-heavy action scenes, the real surprise is how cleverly integrated into the soundtrack the music and dialogue are; although not quite on a par with Walter Murch’s magnificent work for Apocalypse Now, the use of surround effects throughout is consistently surprising and involving, even when least expected. A Dolby track is also provided, which is only of marginally less quality; as usual, unless measured side by side, it’s hard to discern any real difference between the two.
This section may contain spoilers for those who have not seen the film.
Fox have produced some magnificently in-depth special editions in recent months, with genuinely fascinating and comprehensive extras. Sadly, this is not one of them, although it’s still a perfectly enjoyable collection of supplementary material. On the first disc are two commentaries, one with De Bont, and the other with producer Mark Gordon and screenwriter Graham Yost. DeBont is about as dry and technically minded as they come- and not a little arrogant about his subsequent achievement- but the other commentary is a surprisingly candid joy, as Yost and Gordon banter like a pair of old friends, engage in some funny running jokes about how the film was (according to them) the ‘first motion picture ever to feature…’, reveal that Jeff Daniels hated making the film and even criticise several aspects of the film quite severely, as well as having a gloriously bitchy dig at Speed 2 at one point.
The second disc has what appears to be a very strong collection of extras, but which are actually a comprehensive but rather repetitive and dull selection of on-set pieces of making-of footage. The first section focuses on ‘action’, and focuses on the bus jump across the freeway and the final, gloriously overblown emergence of the subway train onto Hollywood Boulevard; however, the multi-angle stunt comparisons included are of vastly more interest than the fairly lengthy and rather dull bits of behind-the-scenes footage, or the storyboard-to-film comparison. The most interesting feature here is storyboards of a deleted action sequence involving an Officer Baker, which would have been spectacularly violent, but was removed on grounds of expense.
Next up is an ‘On Location’ series of features; this includes the complete shooting script (which would take someone with iron will hours to plough through), yet more rather EPK-styled looks at the film’s special effects and physical shooting process, some short and promotionally-orientated interviews, a gallery of storyboard artwork and other photos. All this is all very well, but rather irritating; there’s a lot of ‘what’ and very little ‘why’, a syndrome that the gallery of promotional trailers, a making-of featurette and a Billy Idol music video don’t remedy. In fact, the only really worthwhile extras on the second disc are a few extended scenes, which flesh out the characters very slightly more, and a surprisingly informative Easter Egg, which is footage of the final bus/plane crash as edited for airline transmission. It looks absurd, yes, but it’s not half as bad as the cutting in some mainstream films to obtain lower certificates at the cinema. Overall, then, not bad as a selection of extras, but not up to Fox’s usual remarkably high standards.
Although it has plot holes the size of a double-decker bus, and a finale that feels like a rather forced encore, Speed is still a fantastic piece of entertainment, and one that survives endless viewings, even today, thanks to its limited use of CGI in favour of as much ‘realism’ as possible. Fox present the film on a technically strong disc with a mixed bag of extras that, although comprehensive, aren’t always terribly interesting or useful, but still represent the film’s strongest representation to date.