On the Fast Track

If you want to be sure that the Reagan-Bush era has finally ended, look to Speed. Instead of having a killing machine at the heart of what may well be this summer's defining action movie, we have the suddenly beatific Keanu Reeves, bulked up, to be sure, but still bearing the mark of the Buddha. Reeves is so benign that, to judge from his recent appearance on David Letterman, he immediately shed the muscles he exhibits here.

Speed's premise sounded, to these tired ears at least, hopelessly thin: if a bus, filled with passengers and wired with a bomb, slows to below 50 mph, it'll blow up. I thought they should have quit filming car chases after Bullitt, the standard-setter. (Come to think of it, Reeves looks a little like Steve McQueen's goofy kid brother.) At the very least, The French Connection, with its nifty twists and turns beneath an elevated train, should have let filmmakers know that the possibilities of a car chase had been explored as well as they could be. And given that a chase was all Speed seemed to offer -- even if it was a Zen chase, with only one vehicle involved -- I wasn't too optimistic.

But in fact, Speed's brain trust proved me wrong. It did find some new life in the old formula. The screenplay, by Graham Yost, is divided into three separate action sequences. First comes the introduction of the characters, when Los Angeles SWAT officer Jack Traven (Reeves) and his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels, along as a sacrificial lamb) rescue an elevator-load of people from the designs of mad bomber Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper). This opening sequence, which runs a good 15 minutes, is a spectacular set piece in its own right. So our motors are revved by the time Payne returns for his revenge on Jack. He plants a bomb on a city bus, tells Jack which bus he's targeted, then watches the resulting rescue attempt on television, all the while talking to Jack on a mobile phone, so that the chase sequence plays as an episode of interactive TV.

It's not easy to explain why the bus ride is so gripping, except to say that in the hands of Reeves, and especially director Jan De Bont, its simplicity is beautiful.

The adventure films to which Speed has been compared, in particular Die Hard numbers one and two, were strictly one-man-against-the-world extravaganzas. In the Die Hards, Bruce Willis' personality filled the screen just as much as the explosions did. But that's not the case here. Reeves may be the calm center of Speed, but he doesn't overwhelm the movie.

Indeed, the passengers trapped on the bus get some serious attention as well. The driver is injured early on, so one good-natured rider, Annie (Sandra Bullock), has greatness thrust upon her as she steps in to replace him. The bus is a participatory democracy, and she just happens to be the person nearest the wheel. The real difference between Speed and its action-adventure forebears is seen when Jack, while trying to figure out a way to defuse the bomb, has to deal with his fellow citizens. Two of the bus passengers, stretched too far by the stress they're under, nearly come to blows, and Jack has to step in to break up the fracas. How? Not with a hardass line reading followed by a buttkicking, as might be expected, but simply by laying a hand on one man's shoulder and passing a little of his own transcendent cool along to the sweaty Angeleno. It's not that Keanu Reeves has become a great actor. But the fact that he doesn't say much, or show much, makes his presence count for more than his still-woeful line readings would suggest.

The ride itself is better seen than described. I'll just say that many action films are compared to roller-coaster rides, but this time the comparison is actually valid. Because Speed has so littleactual violence, and is generally so light and optimistic, its effect is pure, mindless thrill. You leave it refreshed, like you've had a great and encouraging ride.

De Bont's pacing and assortment of thrills is so masterful that the eventual explosion comes as a relief. Normally, noisy bangs interest me even less than car chases. But until Speed, I never understood why that was so, or what could make one actually feel right. The problem is that few films bother to earn their explosions; they don't insinuate themselves inside a viewer, where a blast can resonate. Too many films, in fact, begin with an explosion, which can only have the effect of any loud noise you don't have an emotional stake in -- it annoys you and makes you want to shut down. But in Speed, the blast is fully earned and properly orgasmic.

Speed does have its glitches. The Dennis Hopper/Keanu Reeves relationship feels at first like a failed copy of the tortured connection between John Malkovich and Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire. Hopper's involvement with Reeves' Jack Traven is too thin. Hopper does finally grow on you, but, alas, the movie goes on for too long after the bus ride is over. It begins to feel as if the filmmakers are just resolving their plot instead of topping the last thrill.

Still, that doesn't keep Speed from being the most purely exciting film, and even the most purely cinematic film -- large objects in motion, that's what it's all about -- in a very long time.

Directed by Jan De Bont. With Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, Joe Morton and Jeff Daniels.

Rated R.
120 minutes.

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