I’ve talked before about Akira Kurosawa’s wide-ranging influence on cinema, but it’s a little-known fact that he had a hand in the making of Speed, albeit in a rather roundabout way. He once wrote a screenplay based on a train that couldn’t stop, which eventually saw the light of day as the rather bluntly-titled (but also really rather good) Runaway Train. Much later, the American screenwriter Graham Yost saw this film and thought it would work better with a bus, with a bomb on board to keep it moving above a certain speed, and a film that pretty much everyone of a certain age has seen was born.

The icing on the cake however, was probably the input from Joss Whedon, who at the time was just a jobbing script doctor. Yost has openly admitted that Whedon wrote the vast majority of the film’s dialogue, and it’s here that Speed gets elevated from high-concept silliness to something a lot more satisfying. We can all watch a Die Hard knock-off and be reasonably entertained, but what makes Speed stand out from its many, many peers is the way the characters all talk like real people, even when they’re spouting one of the film’s numerous memorable lines. Whedon, who was never officially credited, also added the plot device of killing one of the main characters, which elevates the stakes considerably.

Someone else who maybe doesn’t enough credit for his work here is Keanu Reeves. We buy him as an action hero nowadays, but this was quite a departure from the surfer dude persona he held at the time, which he had only half-escaped with Point Break a few years before. With an almost military-style short crop of hair, and a sombre, serious approach to the material (his friend River Phoenix had died just before filming started), this was Reeves pushing himself into fairly uncharted territory, which often makes an actor a lot more interesting if they’re up to the task. His interaction with Sandra Bullock is something else that keeps things fresh, again helped by those Whedon dialogue re-writes.

It’s far from perfect – the protracted ending once everyone gets off the bus almost derails proceedings (like Dennis Hopper’s violent comeuppance, which is distractingly ripped off from the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor film Silver Streak), and while director Jan de Bont (Die Hard’s cinematographer) keeps everything slick, one can’t help but wonder what Quentin Tarantino would have done with the material (he was offered the job after the success of Reservoir Dogs but declined as he wanted to make Pulp Fiction). But on the whole it’s practically impossible not to enjoy this film on a basic level, and it’s worth taking notes on how you can elevate pulpy material with just a few careful tweaks.

SPEED
Standard Die Hard ripoff, only set on a bus5
Joss Whedon's dialogue and believable human characters9
Keanu - never gonna be Laurence Olivier but does a damn fine job when it's straightforward7
The final fifteen minutes still feel rather tacked-on4
In comparison to Speed 2: Cruise Control10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
7Overall Score

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