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Though simple, Speed still proves successful

SPEED

Directed by Jan DeBont.

Written by Graham Yost.

Starring Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper,

Sandra Bullock, Joe Morton, and Jeff Daniels.

Loews Cheri.

By Scott Deskin
Associate Arts Editor

Speed is a simple-minded action movie that derives most of its inspiration from high-speed jaunts through Los Angeles freeways and subway systems and from some pretty nifty explosions. The character developments are secondary to the plot. Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) is a SWAT team member whose living-on-the-edge heroics make him the ideal hero; Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) is the requisite psychopath whose exploits as a mad bomber are only slightly less reprehensible than his disdain for the hero; Ann (Sandra Bullock) is Traven's unwilling civilian passenger who eventually falls in love with him; and Harry (Jeff Daniels) is Traven's likable but expendable partner. In short, Speed is a formulaic action picture ("Die Hard on a bus," except less sophisticated than Die Hard) that compromises any semblance of a story for non-stop action and big-budget pyrotechnics.

Needless to say, the action keeps audiences riveted to their seats, and Speed ultimately succeeds. As the New Yorker has already dubbed Speed "movie of the year," it's hard to imagine who wouldn't be impressed by such a streamlined example of pure entertainment. The movie begins with a spectacular set-up involving an elevator in a high-rise building, which recalls a little bit of Die Hard itself. By working its story and its actors into a frenetic pace, former cinematographer Jan DeBont (in his debut as a director) doesn't let the pace slow down from there. As the film's title implies, the story moves as quickly as a rush of adrenaline in order to keep up with the required amounts of bloodshed, fast-moving vehicles, and explosions.

As with every great action vehicle, there has to be a gimmick, and Speed is no exception. After foiling Payne's initial attempt to extort $3.7 million from the city, Traven becomes a helpless pawn in the mad bomber's quest to get his money. The problem: A transit bus has been wired with a hefty amount of explosives. The good-hearted hint: Payne tells Traven which bus is carrying the explosives. The catch: Once the bus exceeds 50 miles per hour, the bus is armed to explode if the bus dips below that mark. Therefore, Traven's mission is to catch up with the bus and make sure that innocent people aren't killed. This all sounds rather corny, but the action sequences are so expertly handled that you begin to appreciate the one-liner dialogue, which provides some comic relief.

It would be unfair to give away what happens, since the main action of the movie stems from one long bus ride. The performances are not stellar but merely solid enough to keep the story in check. The hero and heroine, Reeves and Bullock, are pretty pale and one-dimensional. But to wish for anything else from them would probably detract from the action, so their cookie-cutter roles are perhaps a blessing. The real "acting" belongs to Dennis Hopper, who plays the psychopathic villain with his typical acid-damaged panache. There are a few moments where the dialogue becomes laughable, typified by Hopper's character concerning his mission: "Bombs explode. That's their meaning. That's their beauty." But if the screenwriter is far from poetically inclined, the choreographed crashes and explosions are sheer poetry in motion.

A movie like Speed almost defies criticism because it's an example of how crowd-pleasing aspirations and big-budget visual excitement meet. Some people may brush this film off as an expensive way to woo an audience, with hardly any character interaction to make it socially redeeming as an emotionally-charged drama. But if more and more filmmakers are going to take their cue from the Sylvester-Stallone-school-of-action flicks, it would be preferable to get the undiluted spectacle instead of a pretense of a plot thrown in merely to get a nod of respectability from critics. As such, Speed (like Stallone's often-maligned Cliffhanger) is that rare no-brainer of a film that just promises an audience a good time -- an action film strictly for thrill-seekers. I think that includes just about everyone.