Speed ★★★★½

I've never been convinced by the idea of speeding up the out-of-control train as a solution to the out-of-control train problem.

There. That's my one grievance with "Speed".

Otherwise watching this movie is like strapping yourself to a rocket. It's a full throttle burst of pure adrenaline, still one of the purest examples of such I have ever seen. From the moment Dennis Hopper stabs that poor bastard in the ear with a screwdriver, this movie doesn't let up for an instant.

If you haven't seen "Speed", it's about a bus with a bomb on it. The bus cannot go under 50 miles an hour or the bomb will explode, killing everyone on board. It was put there by a mad bomber who wants millions of dollars in exchange for deactivating the bomb. He was thwarted in an earlier hostage situation by a couple of SWAT cops, played by Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels. So it is that he calls to tell Keanu about the bomb to get him aboard the bus, and Keanu does everything in his power to find and deactivate the bomb and catch the bomber.

The movie has a rather elegant three-act structure, each act being a different bomb in a different location, and a different set of challenges to stop the bomb from going off. Graham Yost's script starts off with that tense elevator situation and then transitions masterfully into the bus situation. The bus is the extended center piece of the film, and it's hard to imagine Yost or director Jan De Bont taking better advantage of it. They take a single location and situation and mine it for every ounce of tension and excitement it can yield, by throwing new challenges in to keep the tension escalating and by utilizing every possible position on, under and inside the bus. Yost and De Bont also have a group of fine actors on the bus, interacting and developing under pressure.

Chief among these fine actors are Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. Bullock is feisty and adorable and hilarious as the passenger who becomes the bus's driver after the regular driver is shot. It's a star-making turn, and maybe still the best she's ever been onscreen (though she's also wonderful in the following year's "While You Were Sleeping"). She is a pure delight, and has great chemistry with Reeves.

As for Reeves, he's a fantastic protagonist. That core of innocence and sweetness that he brings to virtually every role is in full effect here. Jack Traven is one of Keanu's most memorable characters. He seems genuinely jazzed to be in extreme situations. He lives to defeat bad guys and save people. He's one of the most enthusiastic action heroes I have ever seen. He's also one of the purest and most seemingly good-hearted. He's the opposite of reluctant, throwing himself onto moving buses (a stunt that I've heard Keanu actually performed himself) and under them and onto moving subway trains (that's the film's third act and, honestly, probably its weakest set piece). He doesn't hesitate and he doesn't really seem to think either, he just does what he feels he must do. Which isn't to say that he isn't clever and that he doesn't figure things out (he does) but he doesn't seem to deliberate much about it. He just does it. He also has a ready, winning smile and an infectiously positive attitude. Seriously, this is one of the most uplifting action films I can think of, and a lot of that has to do with Keanu.

But even setting aside Keanu's considerable and undeniable charms, this movie has a sunny, winning attitude. There is death, sure, and moments of extremely gripping tension, but the movie never forgets that it is a machine for generating fun first and foremost. It's kind of incredible how effective this movie is at putting me on the edge of my seat considering how light it all is. It felt like a pivot in the action genre, for me, when it first came out. A movie that took itself a bit less seriously but still delivered ample tension and excitement, a movie with a genuinely nice and likeable hero (not a glowering, tormented badass with an ex-wife or a drinking problem or something else to make him more "complicated") and a highly effective, ridiculously colorful villain (Dennis Hopper chews scenery magnificently, and as only he could) and a sweet, competent female lead who strikes genuine romantic sparks off of our sweet, upright hero. The supporting cast all adds flavor and amusing little moments as well (Alan Ruck, Glenn Plummer, Joe Morton, and especially Jeff Daniels are all great). De Bont stages all of this thrilling action coherently and with excellent spatial awareness. One never has to struggle to follow what's going on. But it all looks bright and enticing to the eye as well. As for pacing, this movie cannot be beat. It moves like a rocket, a streamlined wonder of economy that develops its characters and themes on the run. The dialogue is even great.

When I saw this in the theater, I dropped my popcorn during one especially tense sequence...and didn't realize it for five minutes. That's how well "Speed" works. And it hasn't lost an ounce of that greatness in the 25 years since its release. If you managed to bottle up the feeling of Summer, I daresay it would look a lot like "Speed", one of the best action films of the 1990s. Hell, probably of all time.