Whatever you do, don’t go under 50 mph.
Many movie fans will recognize that immediately as one of the edicts of “Speed,” the 1994 action blockbuster that holds up extremely well. An HBO showing of it on Thursday, March 25, should reaffirm that — much as the film reaffirmed, and also gave a considerable boost to, Keanu Reeves’ status as a star of the genre (confirmed again lately by his “John Wick” franchise).
“Speed” actually is three movies in one, starting with the set-up that sees police partners (Reeves and Jeff Daniels) foil an extortion plot by the story’s villain (Dennis Hopper, doing everything but twirl a mustache in the part, but that’s what it calls for). That lays the groundwork for the second and main portion, set largely aboard a Los Angeles transit bus that the bad guy has rigged with a bomb.
Reeves’ cop Jack is informed that once activated, the explosive will detonate if the bus’ speed drops below 50 mph. Desperate to save the initially unaware people on board, Jack manages to get on the vehicle, commandeered by a plucky passenger (Sandra Bullock, in her star-making role after several years of TV and movie work) while the police try to figure out how to resolve the situation without alerting the taunting enemy.
The plot’s devices for diverting the bus and keeping it moving at a safe speed are quite clever, one of the best involving an unfinished highway that actually was in that condition at the time of filming. Mid-’90s technology also is used neatly, to trick the embittered ex-cop played by Hopper while he’s using the bus’ surveillance camera to monitor what’s happening.
The third and final element of “Speed” details what happens beyond the bus, once Jack and others think the situation is over — ultimately involving a train ride that’s harrowing in its own way, and providing for a very satisfying final showdown between hero and villain. That’s a lot to pack into a two-hour movie, but “Speed” manages it seamlessly … thanks also to Jan de Bont, who moved very confidently from cinematography into the director’s chair for the first time.
Other cast notables include Joe Morton (“Scandal”) and Alan Ruck (“Succession”), but “Speed” falls principally on the capable shoulders of Reeves, who had “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” behind him and “The Matrix” ahead of him while he made this. And after almost three decades, “Speed” still puts the pedal to the metal.