Speed is, above all else, a journeyman’s movie. Jan de Bont was a DP who had worked with directors as wide-ranging as Ridley Scott, John McTiernan, and Paul Verhoeven before landing the big job, and it was for a movie pitched as “Die Hard on a bus.” Tellingly, de Bont hasn’t directed anything memorable since.
None of this takes anything away from Speed, at all. In fact, this informs the film’s greatest attribute: de Bont, the stunt and effects teams build organically around the bus gimmick. Once the bomb is armed, and Keanu Reeves’ earnest, adrenaline junkie cop is on board, every setpiece plays like a how-to for keeping a bus above 50 mph in various levels of L.A. traffic–freeways, gridlock, and an under-construction interchange get their moments in the spotlight–all requiring on-the-fly thinking and a great deal of luck. Weight, momentum, fuel level, all practical matters are factored in. Speed stealthily pulls off the procedural blockbuster a year before Michael Mann’s Heat. Punch ups and a cast of memorable personalities fill out the script: the passengers, Sandra Bullock especially, match surfer-cool Reeves with with dry, cynical humor about their situation; Dennis Hopper’s meticulous, mugging bomber would’ve made a great Joker. Textbook as it is (a couple circular pans aside, de Bont favors impersonal lock shots), there’s a consideration here sorely lacking in, say, The Avengers and its billion-dollar franchise ilk. Where those films could benefit from logistical thinking, they instead cover up their action with busy CGI and fast edits. If nothing else, journeyman filmmakers should at least be interested in process.