Reeves hot and cold, Hopper overblown, but 'Speed' is a wild ride

June 10, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Speed" kills -- it kills wit, character, charm and empathy.

But it does go fast. Since that is its sole reason for existence, one must say it achieves its narrow goal brilliantly. Watching it is like riding a greased log down a rapids while people are shooting at you.

Situation: A terrorist has rigged a bomb to a bus. If the bus drops below 50 mph, the bomb, the bus and all the people on it turn into a low cloud-cover of DNA confetti. It's rush hour. You're a policeman aboard the bus. What do you do?

If you're Keanu Reeves as LAPD SWAT ace Jack Traven, the last thing you do is act. In fact, his perfromance seems to have do more with sports than acting. He has two modes, In the Game and On the Bench. When he's in the game, roughly 90 percent of the time, he runs around like the anchorman on the all-commando relay team -- sweaty, de-oxygenated, usually dirty faced and always graceful and convincing. And always, alas, a blur. When he's on the bench, he's so pale and wan a presence, he almost goes away. It doesn't help that the screenwriter, Graham Yost, gives us no details, no extra fretwork to get in the way or give the movie much of a human center. Reeves' Traven lacks not merely a tragic dimension or even an ironic one, but any dimension at all; experience has left no imprint on his beautiful features.

Situation: You're an embittered ex-cop who had a hand mangled on a bomb disposal job. But you're a technical genius and the gold watch they gave you when they said goodbye isn't enough. What do you do? Well, if you're Dennis Hopper as Howard Payne, the first thing you do is act. That's all you do. Your performance is the most infernal of the infernal machines you plant: In the detonation of your vanity, you consume not only the scenery but most of the props, the entire canteen, all the lights, probably even the prima-cord rigged by the special effects technicians.

Hopper is almost more than the movie can survive. He's so narcissistic he comes near to upsetting the subtle equation of speed and balance that propels the film forward. He conspicuously lacks charm -- he has none of the bemused irony that made Alan Rickman's terrorist so deliciously attractive in "Die Hard." It's extremely difficult to connect this pudgy, vacant-eyed ranter with the sophisticated devices that the movie is all about, or to imagine him wiring and soldering them, much less planting them. There's no cunning in his eyes, only little signs that say, "Hi, I'm Dennis Hopper and I want you to notice me."

It probably doesn't matter. It also probably doesn't matter that the best guy in the movie is Jeff Daniels, Reeves' partner, who has all the qualities of depth and humanity that Reeves lacks. It doesn't matter either that the filmmakers have SWAT and bomb-disposal units mixed up and commingled in a strange way. And it doesn't matter that they shamelessly sail through extreme technical unlikelihoods without a whit of self-consciousness.

What matters are the gags. The bomb-on-bus routine is only the central act, and not even the best, though it's the most elaborate. It turns out that once director Jan De Bont has set it up he's not too sure what to do next. The stunts are occasionally spectacular -- the bus leaping a gap in the road, an Indiana Jones-like sequence when Reeves rides a little cart underneath the vehicle to get a look-see at the bomb -- but too often we're simply looking at people on a bus. Worse, the interaction between Reeves and Hopper is strained, since it's by telephone.

Much better is the film's opening. Mad bomber Hopper rigs a series of charges to an elevator full of yuppies; it plummets 20 floors, then brakes. Hopper lets it be known that he can detonate a final charge, affixed to the brakes, and that he wants $3.7 million or he'll pop that last cap and, presto, 100 floors down, instant yuppie guacamole!

Reeves and Daniels brilliantly analyze the situation and in very short order sling together an ad hoc rescue operation. Credit where credit is due: the elevator shaft is a location heretofore unused, and director De Bont extracts maximum tension from the fragility of the elevator's perch and the desperate ingenuity of the two cops, as they neatly outwit the killer.

The last act, by contrast, is the worst. It turns into another fistfight-on-a-runaway-vehicle caper, this time on a Los Angeles subway that's heading for infinity. (Op cit, "Narrow Margin," "Thunderball," "Patriot Games," "In the Line of Fire," to name but a few.) Besides being ancient and familiar, the gag is unbelievable, since it matches the young and tough Reeves against the physically unprepossessing Hopper; much better if Reeves had figured out some way to outthink his adversary, thereby beating him on his own terms.

The essence of "Speed" is speed itself; otherwise, it has no essence.

"Speed"

Starring Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper

Directed by Jan De Bont

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

R-rated

** 1/2

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