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.”