Action directing is a put-up-or-shut-up game, a skill that can’t be faked or finessed; even a 10-year-old can tell if you’ve got it or not. And on the evidence of the invigorating “Speed,” Jan De Bont has definitely got it.
Though this story of a mad bomber versus the LAPD’s stalwart SWAT team is De Bont’s first film as a director, he has not exactly come out of nowhere. A cinematographer for more than 30 years, De Bont has worked frequently with fellow Dutchman Paul Verhoeven and has been behind the camera on such big-time action pictures as “Die Hard,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “Black Rain” and “Lethal Weapon 3.”
De Bont’s newness does show in the pro forma nature of some of the characterizations as well as the film’s uninspired dialogue and overall derivativeness. But “Speed” moves too fast for any of that to matter much, and where pure action is concerned, De Bont and his team have turned in a visually sophisticated piece of mayhem that makes the implausible plausible and keeps the thrills coming.
Making “Speed” involving is the premise of Graham Yost’s script, which does a neat twist off the traditional action premise of coping with machines that are going too fast. Here the problem is not, as might be expected, restraining a runaway bus on a crowded freeway, but just the opposite: making sure it doesn’t even come close to slowing down.
For the diabolical madman (a smooth Dennis Hopper) that no action film can exist without has rigged up a deadly explosive device that will detonate if the bus is allowed to go under 50 m.p.h. Quite a dilemma for leap-before-you-look hero Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and his SWAT team pals.
Centering action on familiar items like one of Santa Monica’s friendly Big Blue Buses and its load of drab citizens (plus Sandra Bullock as the inevitable attractive and available woman) is a proven way to make tension personal to an audience. And screenwriter Yost has helped things out by coming up with a surprising variety of problems that can bedevil an ungainly vehicle attempting to keep up speed.
Working with director of photography Andrzej Bartkowiak, editor John Wright and veteran stunt coordinator Gary Hymes, De Bont has taken great pains to make these crises exciting on screen. For the bus sequences, for instance, he had 10 identical vehicles on call and routinely used four to six cameras to film them, moving up to as many as a dozen when recording the most challenging stunts.
None of this work would have mattered, of course, if De Bont didn’t also have an understanding of the mechanics of on-screen movement and a fine sense of the visual possibilities action presents. Nothing “Speed” puts on screen, from fiery explosions to mayhem on the freeway, hasn’t been done many times before, but De Bont and company manage to make it feel fresh and exciting.
De Bont’s talent is visible not only in the bus sequences but also in “Speed’s” nervy opening sequences involving a bomb in an elevator, shot in a specially constructed fully operational five-story shaft. It’s here that we first meet the forceful Jack Traven,his slightly saner partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) and Capt. McMahon (Joe Morton), their no-nonsense superior.
With a brush-cut hairdo and an intense game face that is anything but Buddha-like, Reeves not only gives “Speed’s” strongest performance, his unexpected intensity is crucial in giving the film its drive. Playing Traven with an appropriate edge of take-charge surliness, Reeves is surprisingly believable as a barely human law enforcement machine that even his pals view as “deeply nuts.”
Reeves’ co-stars, however, haven’t been given very much to work with in the way of dialogue or directorial help in building character. As a result, “Speed” has a ways to go before it can equal what “The Fugitive” and “In the Line of Fire” accomplished in matching drama to action.
But if no one is going to leave theaters raving about acting and characterization, it will probably matter little. Tension and release is the name of “Speed’s” particular game, and so far this summer no film has played it so well.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and language. Times guidelines: It includes extreme tension, frequent explosions and crashes and an especially violent ending.
Keanu Reeves: Jack Traven
Dennis Hopper: Howard Payne
Sandra Bullock: Annie
Joe Morton: Capt. McMahon
Jeff Daniels: Harry
A Mark Gordon production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Jan De Bont. Producer Mark Gordon. Executive producer Ian Bryce. Screenplay Graham Yost. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editor Jon Wright. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music Mark Mancina. Production design Jackson De Govia. Art director John R. Jensen. Set decorator K. C. Fox. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.