Speed is to hostage thrillers as Psycho is to slasher flicks. Voted one of AFI's Top 100 Most Heart-Pounding Movies of all time, few hostage movies reach this level of tension and sustain it throughout the entire running time. Audiences may have experienced similar stories before, but they are seldom done this well and with this level of energy.
The movie begins when a deranged mad bomber, Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), severs cables to an elevator inside a Los Angeles skyscraper. The bomber demands $3 million ransom or he'll blow the emergency cables. LA Bomb Squad members Jack (Keanu Reeves) and his partner, Harry (Jeff Daniels), must defuse the bomb before Payne blows the cables. This situation alone could provoke a feature length thriller, but it merely serves as the first act for Speed.
Jack and his crew outsmart Payne and celebrate their victory. Payne jumps to plan B. He rigs an LA transit bus so that if it exceeds 50mph a bomb will become armed--and if it drops below 55mph, it detonates. Payne allows Jack to board the bus and alert the passengers of the situation. Annie (Sandra Bullock) drives the vehicle when the original driver becomes injured during a shootout. From this point on, Annie and Jack must do what they can to prevent the bomb from exploding as they race through the crowded Los Angeles roadways.
Director Jan De Bont and screenwriter Graham Yost allow the situation to evolve beyond the audience's expectations. They keep the tension thick by making the hero overcome one impossible obstacle after another. One such hurdle involves a 50-foot hole in the road on which the bus must pass. Jack orders Annie to put the pedal to the metal in an attempt to jump the huge gap.
Reportedly, actors such as Stephen Baldwin, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, and William Baldwin refused the role of Jack before Reeves accepted. The actor tackles the role with verve and even performs his own stunts, but he makes Jack much too macho. Sandra Bullock's portrayal of Annie works at first, but eventually becomes whiney and annoying. In fact, beyond Dennis Hopper's deliciously obsessive villain and Jeff Daniels's solid supporting role, the lead performances aren't worthy of the high-octane material.
However, such factors do not cause the film to crash and burn (no pun intended). Jan De Bont's stunningly tight direction, Mark Gordon's sharp writing, a gripping soundtrack, and shockingly well-choreographed action sequences more than make up for the few feeble performances, ranking Speed as one of the most effective thrillers of the last decade.