Keanu Revs

The flacks should have a field day with a high-concept action flick like Speed. You can almost predict the blurbs before you've even seen the movie: It's a rush! The thrill ride of the summer! Speed is the ticket! My heart wouldn't stop pounding! Pedal-to-the-metal action! Speed kills! Race to see it!

Before you buy the hype and plunk down your dough, ask yourself one question: "Do I really believe a crowded bus doing 75 mph and being driven by one of the passengers could leap 50 feet in the air and make a perfect landing without decelerating below 50 mph or shattering the riders' spines against the roof on impact?"

If your answer to that question is yes, by all means ante up and enjoy the show. Afterward you might want to consider signing up for a remedial math or physics class.

If, on the other hand, your answer is no, then be forewarned: Speed can be fun but you have to be willing to run a gauntlet of amazing coincidences, unlikely choices, implausible plot developments, and occasionally disappointing special effects. The bus is wired to explode if the speedometer drops below 50; there are times during some of the more intricate swerving maneuvers when you'll swear it's moving so slowly it wouldn't attract attention in a school zone. Broadsided cars, exploding water barrels, flattened trees, snapped telephone poles, and demolished baby carriages help sustain the illusion. But watching Speed too closely is akin to observing a solar eclipse -- it's a lot healthier not to look directly at it. Viewed through the appropriate filter, however, it all shines on.

Keanu Reeves plays Jack Traven, one of those macho SWAT cops who follow gut instincts that are never wrong. In grand movie-cop tradition, Traven is both fearless and lucky. The same could be said of Reeves. His performances in Bram Stoker's Dracula and Kenneth Branagh's version of Much Ado About Nothing were so bad that a more timid soul would have gone into hiding until the next Bill and Ted installment. A brash young actor playing a brash young cop may not be much of a stretch, but at least Reeves had the guts to step in front of a camera again. And he does okay as long as he keeps his mouth shut, which, thankfully, is most of the time. His triceps are taut, his hair is cropped close, and he does most of his own stunts. What more can an action-movie director ask of his leading man?

Well, a little charisma would have been nice. Reeves lacks Willis's swagger, Schwarzenegger's self-awareness, or Sly's sinew. He gives Jack Traven none of the little flourishes that make these cartoon heroes appealing. Luckily, Traven is just along for the ride, literally and figuratively.

Sandra Bullock takes up some of the slack as a feisty passenger forced to grab the wheel when the regular driver gets shot. (Don't ask how; it's one of those implausible plot developments mentioned above.) You find yourself wishing the roles were reversed, with Reeves as the damsel who cannot stay out of distress and Bullock coming to the rescue. The lame, formulaic romance between Bullock's character and Reeves's was probably unavoidable given the dictates of the genre, but it still makes little sense. Chalk it up to smart-women-foolish-choices syndrome.

Dennis Hopper could have phoned in his role as the mad bomber; he clearly takes none of the proceedings seriously. Must have needed something to do between Nike commercials. Glenn Plummer scores in a brief spot as an indignant black man whose Jaguar Traven commandeers to overtake the bus. And Jeff Daniels makes the best of his thankless role as Traven's partner. You know he's doomed from the moment he warns his buddy, "Guns will get you so far, then they'll get you killed. Luck runs out sooner or later." Indeed.

Director Jan De Bont makes his debut at the helm after a long career as a director of photography. De Bont lensed Die Hard, to which Speed is inferior but will no doubt be compared. This film is clunkier and more mechanical; the plot basics hark back to Airport. As you might expect from the first feature of a life-long D.P., innovative camerawork and harrowing stunts take precedence over consistent acting, character development, or believable story. Ultimately, the director's dilemma parallels Traven's: how to keep the vehicle moving once it gets up to speed. Just as Traven employs a little misdirection and a few camera tricks to buy time, so does De Bont. For the most part, the deception works; by the time the film crashes to a halt, your adrenaline is pumping so fast you won't care that none of it made sense. It's a bumpy outing, but ultimately Speed gets you where you want to go.

 
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