The Last Days – Chapter VI – Speed (1994 – Jan De Bont)

speed

I grew up in the days before DVD and in a household that didn’t make regular trips to the video rental shop.  Most of my formative cinephilia came from reading exciting movie reviews in my parents’ paper for whatever was going to be shown late night on telly.  I am enormously nostalgic for those days when I would uncover brand new worlds on a small square screen.  The feeling of coming in halfway through Assault on Precinct 13 (1976 – John Carpenter) and being unable to tear myself away until early the next morning is a feeling of such dumb transcendental bliss that I hope to grasp it again each time I view a new movie.

Even more precious to me are those times I would watch a movie with my dad.  One Christmas we stayed up watching Speed (1994) and it was a such a lovely time.  I should tell my dad that.  Action movies are so precious because they can bring families together.  Violence for everyone!

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One of the reasons this project is resiliently anti-auteurist is because so few directors stick to working within this genre.  There’s a history of the action movie in the nineties that could just talk about James Cameron and Tony Scott and John McTiernan, but that would have to ignore Titanic (1997) and The Fan (1996) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999).  They are all directors whose filmographies are so precious that to ignore these films would be somewhat disrespectful.  So we’re sticking to our history of actors; they can make five or six films in the time it takes a director to make one.  Jan De Bont was a pretty spectacular cinematographer whose films in this role included Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992).  Speed was his directorial debut.

Keanu Reeves was in the ascendant.  Like most sensible stars, he was ensuring that he had as varied a filmography as possible under the belt.  He reprised his star-making turn in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) and made two films with Gus Van Sant that built on his lackadaisical screen persona: My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993).  Highlight of this period is Francis Ford Coppola’s much neglected Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – a butterfly-light, kaleidoscopic vision of expressionistic colour cinema.  Bliss has rarely been so accurately captured on screen.  The affection the public held for Reeves was considerable, and he was returning to big-budget cinema for us all.  Thank god, because Speed was going to originally star Stephen Baldwin, the most disposable of the lesser Baldwins.

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Keanu was still working in direct opposition to the prevailing trend for action movie stars.  In the years surrounding Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s A-list success a bevy of B-list substitutes cropped up.  Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren were all highly physical performers cluttering up the direct-to-video shelves in the rental store.  In the nineties, direct-to-video still represented a derogatory term; these movies were cheaper, smaller and often lacked-finesse.  It would take a few years for these types of films to turn these attributes into strengths – seen most clearly in the two delightful Universal Soldier (1992) DTV sequels Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012) both directed by John Hyams.  These Stallone/Schwarzenegger knock-offs are not without their merits – Van Damme in particular is a remarkably mournful actor – but action movie stars were built in the same vein: strange-accented, muscular behemoths.

Few individuals were joining Keanu in breaking the mould.  Harrison Ford – an extraordinarily charismatic actor, despite his best efforts to prove us otherwise – continued to be a pillar of action cinema.  His two turns at playing Jack Ryan (Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994)) demonstrated his abilities.  But Ford is not a highly physical performer; his appeal extends from his almost hapless ability to endure enormous physical discomfort.  Even in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones is not the all-conquering titan; he is mashed and mullered and only survives through a considerable amount of luck.

When the physicality of an actor was not terribly predominant, vehicles began to take their place.  In the seventies, two genres predated the action movie; the disaster movie and the car chase movie.  The former is best typified by The Towering Inferno (1974) and the latter (a fantastically pure stream of cinema) is best seen in Vanishing Point (1971).  Both genres relied on collateral damage to communicate their pleasures.  Visual delight was found in the destruction of buildings and vehicles.  As action cinema progressed through the eighties and into the nineties, moviemakers realised that the destruction of these inanimate objects proved a safe way to put our hero through the ringer.  By smashing up half-a-dozen cars, you could communicate clearly to the audience the level of threat that our protagonist was enduring.  They were also easily filmed by second-units.

(The ability to produce these scenes using computers, combined with the shared visual trauma of watching the Twin Towers collapse, has led to modern movies experiencing a form of disaster-porn.  Almost every movie nowadays features a scene where a city (often London) endures mass-destruction of its infrastructure.  The experience is profoundly safe for the audience as we know nothing in these CGI scenes is real.)

Which leads us to Speed

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Despite opening with one of the dullest credit sequences ever, Speed boasts a highly engaging cast.  There’s Keanu, whose dedication is intoxicating, Sandra Bullock sparking the screen to life and Dennis Hopper, channelling his history of drug-fuelled megalomaniacal paranoia into a performance of true danger.  The film is kept alive, and is constantly engaging, because his character, Howard Payne, is so unpredictable.  He cannot be reasoned with.  He cannot be negotiated with.  Hopper represents the absolute limit of seventies auteurist cinema – there is no space in cinema for free-wheeling experimentation.  Now cinema will be dominated by tightly-ruled, budget conscious journeymen.  Police officers often complain about the amount of paperwork they have to do.  You get the sense that Reeves, and subsequently directors like De Bont, get a huge amount of satisfaction from the job.

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Dennis Hopper as Howard Payne in Speed (1995 – Jane De Bont)

Money looms over the film.  The back of the bus features an advert which states ‘Money isn’t everything (yeah, right)’.  There is a financial necessity to these films.  They cost an awful lot of money to make, but are expected to make mind-boggling sums of money in return.  Studios spend astronomical amounts on advertising in order to ensure we go and see the latest blockbuster (the current cinematic landscape depends on a small handful of mega-blockbusters doing very, very well.)  Everything within the movie has to be organised and re-written and focus-grouped to ensure that the film is a success.

The target audience of Speed would likely be the passengers on the bus.  They are those left behind by the economy.  They do not own cars and work in low-paid jobs (look how much the film emphasises how Sandra Bullock usually drives herself to work – she is not one of these people, she is rich, she is acceptable).  One passenger immediately reveals himself to be a criminal.  The public transport users are disposable, victims of a system that makes just a few people richer and richer.  Later in the film Dennis Hopper declares that “Poor people are crazy – I’m eccentric.”  Immediately the difference between those who can and those who can’t are made apparent.  Those with money have a degree of self-determination.  Those on the bus would never achieve this.

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Money isn’t everything in Speed (1995 – Jan De Bont)

Speed benefits, as all successful action movies do, from a constantly escalating sense of tension.  It’s surprising on first viewing, how little “There’s a bomb on this bus.” is actually part of the movie.  Whilst for some films, Die Hard (1988) being the prime example, a defined sense of space is vital when escalating tension, Speed chooses to introduce new elements in order to keep the audience involved.  Cliffhanger (1993) and this movie are demonstrating how the rhythm of these movies is firmly established.  It also benefits from a highly entertaining script, one full of amusingly throwaway jokes.  By this stage, scriptwriters were becoming less and less like authors.  Their job was to polish and re-draft the work of others.

Action movies often cast their heroes as police officers with little regard to the consequences of this decision.  Our heroes are often forced into roles whereby they cause wanton destruction and murder individuals.  This emphasises the problematic role law enforcement officers play within our society.  The ‘law’ is often defined and interpreted by the individual as they see fit.  Underlying prejudices will come to the fore.  This is readily apparent in the fact that Dennis Hopper’s character is an ex-police officer.  Speed features the deeply distasteful scene of a police officer dragging a black man from a car in order to appropriate it for his own use.  This act is done without regret or consideration.

As a piece, the film unites the media and law enforcement in a profound way.  The media are clearly seen to interfere with police procedures.  Dennis Hopper has a degree of power and influence over our protagonists through television crews filming the movements of the bus.  It is a pattern of events bizarrely contemporaneous with the O. J. Simpson arrest and trial.  As the years would progress, the relationship between the media and the police would become increasingly messy.

We now exist in a twenty-four hour news cycle, one where every development in an investigation is reported immediately.  Because of this, there is an increasing pressure on reporters to identify developments in the case.  In the UK, three crimes show the tense, and developing, relationship between the media and police.  Reporters involved in the Soham Murders of 2002 noticed that the perpetrator, Ian Huntley was asking a substantial amount of questions regarding the investigation and passed their concerns onto the police.  He was later convicted for the murders of two children.  Emboldened by this success, the media were being whipped into active participants in police investigations.  By 2010, their confidence in their own investigative abilities was leading to issues.  During the Northumbrian manhunt for Raoul Moat, Sky News gave a detailed report on how the police were tracking Moat using his mobile phone despite it being switched off.  He learnt of this information and altered his behaviour accordingly, severely hampering the investigation.  Later that year, newspapers (the Murdoch-owned Sun in particular) hysterically reported largely fictional, and highly offensive, accounts of murder victim Joanna Yeate’s landlord Christopher Jeffries when he was taken in for routine questioning.  There were moments where they were clearly overstepping the mark.

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Watching me, watching you in Speed (1995 – Jan De Bont)

The media’s ability to record and report ongoing investigations is an increasing element of the modern world.  Speed pre-empts this, and gives us an indication of how these crimes would be viewed and processed by us, in both the fictional and real world (which are often hard to distinguish between given the proliferation of visual stimulus in the world.)

Remarkably, Speed also emphasises the increasing role mobile phones would play in our lives.  Reeves communicates with Hopper using such a phone constantly throughout the movie.  A revolutionary sight at the time, but one that has been largely ignored by cinema.  Despite the everyday, nigh-constant use of these devices, movies rarely feature substantial moments where characters communicate using mobile phones.  Given we message other individuals almost constantly during the day, you’d think that movies, especially ones featuring teenagers, would feature such communication.  Very few filmmakers incorporate the technology into their work effectively; Jaume Collet-Serra and Sofia Coppola are two such individuals – and surprisingly, notorious luddite Quentin Tarantino in his most recent modern-day film Death Proof (2007).

Cinema should have revolutionised with the revelation that we all have a camera in our pockets.  Instead, monetary forces ensure that the same old nonsense is peddled to us year after year.

It is surprising, that when we are talking about Speed, we’re talking about something that is quite close to a work of prophecy.

* * *

Keanu Reeves continued his eclectic approach to choosing projects.  We will catch up on his adventures in Chapter X.  But from Speed onwards, he is established as a genuine action hero; and actor who can headline a major motion picture with considerable ease.

De Bont became something of a cinematic dead-end, largely because of his (and Sandra Bullock’s) ill-judged choice to make Speed 2: Cruise Control in 1997.  Despite Speed’s emphasis on constant escalation of incidence over oppressive sense of place, this sequel confines itself to a boat.  It clearly places Sandra Bullock as a star – something that was obvious in her debut appearance in Speed – but one that was never fully capitalised upon, because action movies so rarely feature female protagonists.  Keanu Reeves declined to return, and his cut-price, budget conscious replacement is the instantly forgettable Jason Patric.  Keanu is so good at what he does, he makes it seem easy.  Patric is a bland, walking wall of an individual.  He’s far too sincere for us to like him.

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Sandra Bullock and Jason Patric in Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997 – Jan De Bont)

De Bont makes the strange decision to shoot the majority of the film in close-up, denying us any real sense of scale.  This is always a problem when filming in water, as the majority of the action is shot in a water tank, preventing the standard widescreen shots.  Speed 2: Cruise Control is a dull film, with a dull title and two leads who lack any reasonable form of chemistry.  When Sean Connery was persuaded to return to the role of James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) he was allowed to make any two films he wanted.  He chose to make The Offence (1972) a sweaty, uncomfortable, bleak drama that demonstrated his full range as an actor.  When Sandra Bullock was offered a similar deal to star in this Speed sequel, she chose to make Hope Floats (1998)…

…oh, and Speed 2: Cruise Control wasn’t even the best film set on a boat that year.

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Speed is vital because it shows how much the action movie landscape was changing.  The era of established stars was coming to an end, and the repetitive nature of sequels was proving unsatisfactory.  Action movies would be built around concepts, where ideas would bring a constantly escalating sense of tension to the screen.  It cruises by on the charm of its two leads, and provides a clear glimpse into the role of technology, investigation and media will play in the oncoming decades, whilst simultaneously burying the corpse of seventies’ auteurist cinema.

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