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Retrospective Film Review: Jan de Bont’s ‘Speed’

Sunday 27 April 2014

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Words Darren Skene

Poor old Wally Pfister. Early buzz surrounding his directorial debut Transcendence has been lukewarm to say the least.

Though when cinematographers tire of playing second fiddle to their masters and decide to march to the beat of their own drum, the results can be triumphant. After photographing such films as Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Flatliners, Lethal Weapon 3, Basic Instinct, and Black Rain, Jan de Bont stepped in to film Speed, a high-concept chase-actioner in which the improbably heroically-titled Jack Traven attempts to rescue passengers from a GM New Look public bus in downtown LA that’s set to blow up if its speed drops below 50mph.

Graham Yost’s screenplay (with uncredited rewrites by Joss Whedon) is brutally perfunctory at times, not helped by Reeves’ dead-behind-the-eyes delivery and Dennis Hopper’s bomber Howard Payne – a man so Scoobyly evil he can click his fingers without using his thumb – and who shines Jack on by saying things like, “Your life is empty because you spend it trying to stop the bomb from becoming.” But other than that Speed is bold, glossy, stylish, cleverly trisected into self-contained acts – Elevator, Bus, and Metro – and gloriously unrelenting. The script’s underdevelopment of character translates well into individuals with streamlined goals. Twister, Speed 2: Cruise Control and Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider sequel followed, with de Bont at the helm, but he hasn’t again been able to replicate this kind of directorial success.

Words: Ash Verjee