Critics are always carping that all Hollywood puts out these days are mindless, escapist entertainments of no substance. And that may be true. But in defense of wasting away two hours of your life on something utterly devoid of nutritional value, I have to argue -- can man live on high-brow, meaningful movies alone? Let's face it: would you rather watch 'Gandhi,' or 'The Goonies' on cable for the 1,258th time? This is why I say thank god for Hollywood's love affair with brain-numbing stupidity, because without it we wouldn't have movies like 'Speed' -- a film that adds absolutely nothing to the sum consciousness of the universe, but is so goshdarn entertaining that even Stephen Hawkings put it on his Top Ten Movies of the Year list in 1994.*
'Speed' doesn't have much in the way of a plot, per se, but in terms of Hollywood high concept, it's brilliant. Keanu Reeves stars as LAPD cop Jack Traven, your typical movie loose cannon who doles out advice like, "If the bad guy has a hostage, shoot the hostage -- that way he has to drop his cargo." (Sound advice that I'm sure they tell every LAPD trainee.) Traven and his straight-arrow partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) are experts at diffusing explosives, but on this particular day, they are going to mess with the wrong mad bomber. After Tavern foils a plot by the psychotic Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) to deep-six an elevator full of passengers, Payne sets another one on a bus. Only there is a hitch -- if the bus drops below 50mph, it's hasta la vista, baby. Traven is now in a race against time: he must board the bus, keep it moving, defuse the bomb, and stop Payne -- all while somehow racing at breakneck speed down Los Angeles' crowded freeway system. Not helping matters is the bus' impromptu new driver, Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), who really wishes she had just taken the train. Los Angeles at rush hour has never been this much fun.
In terms of pure visceral thrills and non-stop excitement, 'Speed' is up there with the best action movies Hollywood has produced. All of the elements fit together seamlessly, like the perfect cinematic jigsaw puzzle. The script has not an ounce of fat. Jan De Bont's tight direction wastes not a single shot. And the performances are perfect for the material. We like Reeves. We like Bullock. We hate Hopper. And even though they are a hilariously cliched, perfectly diverse assortment of ethnic types, we don't want the people on the bus to die. Rare for a dumb action movie, we genuinely care about the outcome, so 'Speed' earns every last one of its goosebumps. Moving along with the precision of a Rolex, and looking just as good, our suspended disbelief is never broken. I remain impressed at how, after watching the flick for like the tenth time now, I still can't help but break into a sweat.
Granted, 'Speed' really has nothing to say. It offers no comment on our culture, on the LAPD, or even some gooey sentimental lesson on the evils of terrorism. It's simply a videogame on-screen, but one so ingeniously designed we don't care how shameless it is. Add to that Reeves' finest performance (which I suppose isn't saying much for the monosyllabic actor), a star-making turn Sandra Bullock (who's so fresh-faced and uningratiating we just want to hug her and tell her it's all gonna be alright) and the fact that this is the only De Bont movie that doesn't totally suck, and how could you ask for a more endlessly rewatchable, totally guilt-free popcorn entertainment? Sorry, Gandhi. Next time you're up against 'Speed,' I'm going with the exploding bus.
(*Okay, that Stephen Hawkings bit was a lie. But you believed it for a second, didn't you?)
Wow, what a surprise. I don't know why, but I wasn't expecting much image-wise from 'Speed.' The film has been released and re-released so many times on disc, in versions that were good but not mind-blowing, that I assumed this would just be another ho-hum transfer, high-def or not. So what a treat to enjoy this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 remaster, which really sparkles. 'Speed' may now be a dozen years old, but it sure doesn't look it.
Fox has done a very fine clean-up job on this one. The source is in mighty good shape, with nary a blemish or dropout to be found. Colors are also terrific, with rich, natural hues and no oversaturation. Fleshtones, too, are nice and orange-y. The image is also nice and detailed, from the wide shots of cityscapes that look sharp and three-dimensional, to close-ups that reveal every little pore on Keanu Reeves' forehead. Contrast also excels across the entire grayscale but is not overpumped, which gives the transfer plenty of pop without sacrificing realism. Sure, there is some slight grain throughout (remember when they used to shoot movies on actual film?), but it's minimal.
I do have a few complaints that keep 'Speed' from being in the top-tier of Blu-ray releases. There are some edge halos -- a couple of shots of Reeves silhouetted against a white-blue sky stood out in particular. There are also a couple of odd moments of wavering in the print where contrast seems to jump up and down. Plus, a bit of fuzziness here or there, although generally this is still a very sharp transfer. But all in all, I still rank this one a four-star transfer.
'Speed' looks great, and it sounds great, too. Fox has worked up another DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 track, and even just an extraction of its 1.5mbpx DTS "core" delivers great audio. The film's already whiz-bang sound design certainly doesn't hurt -- it was state-of-the-art back in 1994 and still holds up very well today.
I was particularly impressed by the expert localization of discrete effects. Right from the opening elevator rescue sequence, both major and atmospheric effects, such as car horns, off-camera dialogue and score cues are directed to all five channels with pinpoint accuracy. The sense of reality is palpable, with the largely studio-constructed soundtrack never less than believable. Low bass is quite powerful, delivering excellent oomph throughout. Dialogue also holds up against the sheer loudness of the rest of the track (just the way we like it), and even the usually mumbly Keanu Reeves is perfectly intelligible. For that reason alone, 'Speed' deserved its Best Sound Design Oscar.
'Speed' hit standard-def DVD in a "Five Star Collection" two-disc set a few years back that was a bit underwhelming. It was brimming with lots of featurettes and interviews all right, but upon closer examination it all turned out to be old EPK stuff and endless vignettes on the stunts and effects. So the fact that this first-ever Blu-ray release of the film lacks even a single one of those extras is perhaps not as devastating as it first appears. Sure, I hope Fox double dips this one someday and really pulls out all the stops, but I can't say I'm shedding too many tears in the meantime.
That said, the Five Star's two best features are carried over. Those would be the two audio commentaries, the first by director Jan De Bont solo, and the second featuring producer Mark Gordon and screenwriter Graham Yost. This is the rare case where the director track is the weakest of the bunch. De Bont is passionate but dry as a stone, and after ten minutes of his monotonous voice I started to break out into hives. Okay, granted, I'm still bitter -- after paying to see such subsequent dreck as 'Twister' and his godawful 'Haunting' remake, I kind of hate the guy. Gordon and Yost deliver some real action in their track though, with all the cool behind-the-scenes trivia and stories we want to hear, from the casting, to on-set chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, to how the had to squeeze in a huge crew and twelve actors on a tiny little bus, to how to simulate demolishing L.A.'s underground subway when you are on a limited (for the time) budget.
The only other non-HD-exclusive extras are the film's Theatrical Trailer in full 1080p video, plus clips for a few other Fox Blu-ray titles.
'Speed' is a fun ride which gets by largely on the appeal of its leads and the high-octane action scenes. This Blu-ray release certainly delivers, with a great transfer and soundtrack. Though there are no video-based extras, Fox has thrown in a couple of audio commentaries and an HD-exclusive trivia track. This may not be the ultimate special edition of 'Speed' fans have been waiting for, but it's a great second-best.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.