‘Speed’ – An Action Masterclass

It’s been almost 30 years since Speed, starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, hit theaters. The film still ultimately holds up as an action film that does it all from an elevator evacuation to a subway crash to a highway speed chase. Some of the many reasons the film holds up decades later include the movie star power of the cast, the intense action sequences, and the practical stunts. 

Speed is quite often described as “Die Hard on a bus.” The first choice for director for the film was John McTiernan, the director of Die Hard, who turned it down because, well, he thought it was too similar to Die Hard. However, McTiernan did suggest the eventual director of Speed, Jan de Bont. De Bont had worked with McTiernan as the director of photography on, yes, Die Hard. Originally, Speed took place entirely on the bus and not able to go below 20 miles per hour, before it was suggested they boost it to 50. The film was also originally titled Minimum Speed. Screenwriter Graham Yost and de Bont took the film to 20th Century Fox after Paramount passed, who said they would green light it if scenes were added that were not on the bus. This is when de Bont suggested the elevator set piece, as he had been trapped in an elevator once when he was working on a film…called Die Hard

When the film was at Paramount, Jeff Speedman had been hired to play the male lead Jack Traven. 20th Century Fox weren’t set on Speedman, though. Stephen Baldwin was offered the leading role, but he thought Jack was too much like Die Hard hero John McClane, so he passed. Ultimately, the part went to Keanu Reeves. De Bont didn’t want Jack to have long hair, wanting him to appear sterner and “in control.” Reeves agreed with this vision for the character and shaved his head…completely. De Bont said the studio was freaked out when they saw it, and his hair only grew in a bit by the time filming started from his extreme shave. (Personally, I think his hair is perfect in Speed.)

Originally, the character of Annie was going to be a paramedic, which would be used to explain why she could handle driving a speeding bus under pressure. With that character’s backstory, Halle Berry was offered the role, but she turned it down. Then, the character was rewritten into a drivers’ ed teacher with more of a comedic sidekick vibe, with Ellen DeGeneres in mind for the role. However, they eventually settled on Annie as both a sidekick and love interest, and that’s when Sandra Bullock won the part.

In rewatching Speed, it’s easy to see that it holds up almost 30 years later because of how much of the film utilized practical effects. In the film, there are multiple explosions, actors leaping from moving vehicles, the bus jump, and of course, lots of dangerous high-speed bus driving. Having worked on Die Hard as a cinematographer, de Bont realized what a difference it made to the authenticity of the film and the performances when the actors performed their own stunts. The director worked to get the cast trained until they felt comfortable doing most of their own stunt work in Speed. “I tried to do as much as I could,” Reeves explained to HuffPost. “The stunt coordinator Gary Hymes really took care of me and came up with inventive ways of putting me in those situations. Through harnessing, he got me under the bus at 30 mph.” In the same HuffPost interview, de Bont recalled there were around six scenes that utilized visual effects. He noted that, “These were more visual effects that were later composited, rather than the special effects we know today.” 

Speed does something a lot of action films tend to not do, which is focus on the humanity at the core of the film rather than a bigger picture scenario. Yes, all audiences could be scared of the plot happening to them, but Speed spends time with the passengers on the bus at the center of the film. In the HuffPost interview, de Bont said, “I feel like my whole idea for [Speed] was to be with the characters as much as possible, to let the actors do as much of the stunts themselves. Don’t rely on the stunt doubles and covers and stuff like that, but train them –- and, of course, let them do the effect in a non-dangerous way … it is more realistic, but also, you can understand why the actor or the character reacts in a certain way … unlike when they anticipate something on a green screen.”

While Speed is almost 30 years old, the film truly holds up on a rewatch. The movie star magic between Reeves and Bullock combined with the electric action sequences elevate the film from a generic 90s blockbuster to a masterclass in action cinema. 

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