Pop quiz, hotshot: Keanu Reeves is currently one of the top action stars in Hollywood. The internet loves him with a stalker-ish intensity. How did this happen? What brought the 54-year-old actor to the peak of his career more than 30 years after his first film?
I submit that this process began back in 1994, with the release of Speed, which turns 25 on Monday. Before Reeves was defined by The Matrix and John Wick franchises, Speed was by far his most successful and popular film. (John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum recently passed Speed‘s $121 million domestic gross in just its third week of release. But $121 million was a lot of scratch in ’94.)
Keanu plays Jack Traven, an LAPD cop who is tasked with stopping a mad one-thumbed extortionist bomber named Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper). As anyone with even a faint knowledge of ’90s action cinema knows, Payne has rigged a Los Angeles city bus with a bomb that is armed when the bus goes above 50 mph, and set to detonate when the bus goes below 50 mph. Jack is aided by Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), a passenger with a suspended license who proves shockingly adept at driving a bus strapped with a bomb through gridlocked L.A. traffic.
Speed‘s defiance of logic and even common sense has been well-documented. Revisiting the movie recently, some of the narrative inconsistencies and throwaway loose ends seemed flat-out weird. (Spoiler alert, but the part where the bus crashes into an airplane on a runway at LAX never quite resolves whether, you know, there were hundreds of people on that plane who were instantly incinerated.) But for the most part, the good parts of Speed are still extremely good. I refer to anything involving the bus smashing into cars or Keanu smashing himself into the bus — like when he flings himself on-board from a speeding (sorry) Jaguar, or when he zips under the bus, Indiana Jones-style, and almost gets his damn skull crushed.
It’s a much grittier film that I remembered, though that says more about how CGI-heavy action movies are now in comparison. Even the famous bus jump, the movie’s most iconic and singularly preposterous sequence, now has a surprising level of verisimilitude. You can tell that they actually jumped that bus — maybe not 50 feet, as the movie claims, but you still feel every lurch, scrape, and piece of grinding metal on that thing as it takes flight. And this inevitably adds to the excitement of watching Speed. No matter how silly the movie gets — and, clearly, it is very, very silly — it’s still grounded in a kind of tangible real-world stakes that makes Speed absolutely gripping.
In its time, Speed was regarded as Die Hard on a bus — just like Die Hard on a mountain (Cliffhanger), Die Hard on a battleship (Under Siege), Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57), and Die Hard on a different plane and this time with Harrison Ford as the president (Air Force One). Speed is the best of these films, thanks in part to the direction of Jan de Bont, whose qualifications included being the cinematographer on the actual Die Hard. But the film works first and foremost because of Reeves, and the chemistry he has with Bullock.
Forgive me if this sounds like hyperbole but in 2019 Speed almost seems like an art-house film. Twenty-five years later, a relatively low-concept summer film that’s not associated with an established franchise is pretty much a unicorn. Also factor in that Reeves and Bullock at the time were not bankable stars. Bullock only had a few supporting roles on her resume, including playing second-fiddle to Sylvester Stallone in 1993’s I-assume-hasn’t-held-up-at-all sci-fi adventure Demolition Man. As for Reeves, he was most famous for the Bill and Ted movies. Though by the early ’90s, he was drawn mostly to indie movies and prestige fare. In the few years preceding Speed, he acted in movies directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci, and, most notably, Gus Vas Zant, who made 1991’s My Own Private Idaho with Reeves and Reeves’ close friend, River Phoenix.
An Entertainment Weekly feature from 1994 was somewhat incredulous about Reeves’ prospects for being a leading man in a summer blockbuster — an arched eyebrow is implied with the question mark that follows “the next action star” in the headline. You can feel the film’s PR department trying to sell Reeves as a tough guy. The author of the article gets favorable quotes from Hopper about how Reeves bulked up for the role. (“He looks like a bulldog.”) And de Bont suggests that while the studio was upset about Reeves cutting off his surfer-dude shag, the more conservative near-buzzcut he sports in Speed was more appropriate for the role. “He’s represented too much the grunge look for too long,” de Bont tells EW. “I felt like he had to grow up. In this movie he is really coming of age.”
You also get a sense of how green Reeves was from the clip below of his appearance promoting Speed on The Late Show with David Letterman. It was, apparently, his first time on the show. (At the start, Letterman apologizes for pronouncing his name like Key-new.) Reeves otherwise is very young and super skinny in his baggy suit that makes him look like a 15-year-old kid on his first date.
Bulldog comparisons aside, Reeves was never going to be a conventional macho hero in the mold of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis. And, to his credit, Reeves didn’t aspire to that. “I’m not averse to working in the genre again; it was good, clean fun,” he submitted to EW. “But my ambition is variety.”
Reeves seemed more committed to making films like My Own Private Idaho. In Idaho, Reeves is Scott Favor, a young hustler who is prostituting himself on the streets of Seattle in order to rebel against his wealthy father. Phoenix is Mike Waters, a fellow hustler who aches with unrequited love for Scott, a lunkhead who insists he only has sex with men for money. During the press cycle for Idaho, Reeves was asked whether he was concerned that playing a gay man — or a man who happens to have for-profit gay relationships, as Scott might put it — would hurt his heartthrob image. “Who am I — a politician?” he scoffed to Interview magazine. “No, I’m an actor. That wasn’t a problem.”
What did make Reeves uncomfortable was playing a quippy action hero who dispatched bad guys with corny one-liners, a la Willis in the original Die Hard. Reeves insisted on a re-write of Speed‘s script that took out the jokes and made Traven a more straight-forward and earnest hero. “I dealt with the LAPD before on Point Break, and the thing that came off is their concern for human life: ‘We get the bad guys, and we get to save the good guys,’” he told EW.
(Thankfully, Hopper stepped up in the “corny one-liner” department. At the start of Speed, he sticks a knife in the skull of a security guard. “Nothing personal!” he drawls. At another point, he spits at Traven, “Do not attempt to grow a brain,” a nice meta-joke about Reeves’ early-’90s Zen himbo persona.)
As an action star, what distinguishes Reeves is his sensitivity. Even in the midst of the hyper-choreographed ultraviolence of the John Wick movies, you never get the sense that he enjoys knocking off faceless henchmen; it’s a burden he must bear on behalf of the memory of his late wife, or to avenge his beloved dog. That derives from Speed, a ridiculous action spectacular with a thoughtful, serious center.
Revisiting stories written around Speed’s release reminded me of a tragedy that coincided with the filming of the movie — River Phoenix’s death from a drug overdose in the fall of 1993 at the age of 23. Phoenix’s passing was to Hollywood what Len Bias’ death was to the NBA. It took a young talent who everybody presumed would become a superstar out of commission, changing the course of dozens of lives and careers in the process. One of those people was Keanu Reeves.
“It happened one day, and the next day we were working and he never brought it up, and I never brought it up either,” Hopper told EW. When the magazine pressed Reeves for a comment, he was reticent. “Oh, I miss him,” he said simply. “I miss him greatly.”
When faced with the challenge of growing up, what do you do? What do you do? It might be a little too pat to suggest that Phoenix’s death marked an ending for one part of Reeves’ career, while Speed signaled the start of another. But revisiting the film now, it does feel like the genesis for the Keanu Reeves we know today, a crossroads that forged the next quarter-century of his career, and beyond.