Thu, 18 Aug 1994

`Speed', classic suspense in modern setting

By Sean Cole

JAKARTA (JP): In opening sequence to Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, a bomb is secretly placed into the trunk of a car and for the next three minutes we are made to watch this trunk roll at a snail's pace through the black and white evening.

The low, ominous music heightens the expectation of the bomb's explosion to an almost unbearable degree. The car slows, regains its pace and finally stops at a security booth. We know what is going to happen, we may even be able to guess what it will look like, but we do not know when.

As with great romantic, dramatic, comedic, surreal and countless other cinematic structures, suspense is an art form. It is a craft that Hitchcock revolutionized, virtually fathered, for the screen. To create successful suspense one must have an expert sense of timing, a scrutinizing cinematic eye, an obsession for camera detail and a ruthless, creative aptitude for surprising an audience as well as countless other brilliant, warped talents. It is very easy for suspense to fall flat on its face. Thankfully, there are films like Jan De Bont's Speed.

With Speed we are able to trace elements of suspense's success straight back to Hitchcock's seminal influence. Now, this may seem like high praise for a major-market action movie with such trendy names in its cast, but Speed is different, and the echoes of Hitchcock are apparent from the very beginning.

With the opening credits we follow the perimeter of an elevator shaft from one of the higher floors down to the basement. Here, awaits the antagonist of the film, Dennis Hopper, at his standard, brilliant level of psychosis. His mercilessness and lack of regard for human life are quickly made clear when a security guard approaches him to ask for an invoice and Hopper drives a knife through his skull.

Soon, we learn that Hopper has rigged a bomb on the roof of one of the elevators in the office building -- simply looking for a good ransom to retire on. He traps the passengers and activates the bomb, occasionally sending the elevator hurtling for a few floors to demonstrate his utter control over the passengers' fate. Not much later, the heroes of the story are introduced. Los Angeles S.W.A.T. team officers Jack Traven (Keaneu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels), pulling Jack's "gut" crusade off on their own to save the day.

What transpires next should not be spoiled. Suffice it to say, that the villain is foiled, Jack Traven is seen as the reason for this failure and many elements of this first, chair-gripping portion of the film beautifully foreshadow the real action of the story.


Now for the reason to see this film: A few mornings later, after grabbing a cup of coffee to go and having a bus explode in his face, Jack Traven gets a call on a public phone nearby. Next, the bomber, who is still unnamed, tells him what is to drive the film for about the next hour. There is a bus, moving through the center of town, with a bomb on it. As soon as the bus reaches fifty miles-per-hour, the bomb is activated. If the bus then drops below fifty miles-per-hour, the bomb will explode. If Jack tries to get any passengers off of the bus, the bomber will detonate the bomb. The bomber wants three million dollars, he tells Jack the number of the bus and where its located.

Add to this an inexperienced driver, Annie (Sandra Bullock), extremely frightened and impatient passengers and an incomplete highway and you've got a film that should not be attended by cardiac patients.

This film is something that we have never seen before. It is not that we have never seen a cop-film or a bomb-film, but we have never seen a bus-film. We certainly have not seen such well- constructed suspense in quite a while. Again, when it comes down to it, we know what is going to happen. An unstoppable policeman matched against an immovable psychotic who produces a bomb that must eventually explode. But when, where, who or what will cause it? Will any of the passengers be on it when it goes? This is what we sweat over. This is what is impossible to predict.

What's even more surprising is the number of conflicts throughout the film. If this were an average mainstream picture, it would have been about a bunch of people trapped in a bomb- laden elevator. Yet, even after the central conflict has passed there is still more high-intensity action to be gotten out of Speed.

All of the makers, particularly writer Graham Yost and director Jan De Bont, should be commended for such an exhaustive effort. Of all the action films that have come to Jakarta, this is probably the best. Action as a format is fine, but when it is well-done it is incredible.

Of course Speed has its major-market foibles. There are some very superficial cliche's and not everything is unpredictable. The only difficulty that is worth mentioning, is Keaneu Reeves. Though he is certainly appropriate for the role, his voice and expressions still tend to be forced and strained at times.

To his credit, however, there are times when the glowing potential we saw in My Own Private Idaho shines through and, after his admittedly effortful work in Little Buddha, it is good to see Reeves in a film that is more his (forgive me) speed.