Pop quiz, hotshot! Speed is turning 20, and you want to reference it without saying "pop quiz, hotshot," because that's so overused. What do you do? What do you do? While I think of an answer, let me point out that Speed came out 20 years ago this week, so if you saw it in theaters, You're Old®. You might even be above 50, never to drop below it again.
Like the bus at the center of it, Speed was a risky proposition that could have ended in disaster. The director and the writer, Jan de Bont and Graham Yost, hadn't directed or written a movie before. (De Bont was an experienced cinematographer; Yost had worked in TV.) Everyone in the cast was famous, but no one was currently a major movie star. All the action is set in uncomfortable places (a bus, a subway, an elevator, a Los Angeles freeway, an airport tarmac) in which people hate spending time. The premise is tantalizingly easy to grasp -- BUS GO BOOM IF SLOW DOWN! -- but also deeply ludicrous. Sometimes audiences go for that sort of thing; sometimes they don't. Speed could have gone either way.
(If you think about it, here's how Speed would play out in real life:
KEANU REEVES: There's a bomb on this bus!
DRIVER: [slams on the brakes]
But thanks to on-point marketing and almost unanimously positive reviews, the film opened strong and stayed powerful through the summer, even in the face of juggernauts like Forrest Gump and The Lion King. Speed was the eighth highest grossing film of 1994 in the U.S., its $121 million haul equaling about $230 million at today's ticket prices. "Bomb-on-bus pic does boffo business!" said Variety, in my imagination.
The film's deceptively simple story is parceled out in neat, symmetrical units. It's 116 minutes long. A quarter of the way through, at the 30-minute mark, Dennis Hopper explicitly states the premise: "There's a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up." Additional complications arrive at regular intervals after that, until almost exactly 60 minutes later, when the crisis is resolved as everyone is evacuated from the bus.
Before and after that hour-long main section are other crises -- one on an elevator, one on a subway -- that are miniature versions of the main one, with recurring details (bombs, confined spaces, deadlines) and parallel plotting. Instead of being unrelated, the appetizer and the dessert are made from the same ingredients as the main course (and are just as tasty), and everything arrives on a reliable, satisfying timetable. It may not be gourmet, but it sure is delicious.
It's so delicious, in fact, that we don't even mind the bad dialogue, most of which came from uncredited rewrites by one Joss Whedon. The people on the bus are dim, bickering idiots who hardly react when they hear about the bomb, then periodically say or do something hysterical to compensate for the initial disinterest. Despite the situation, they have incongruously casual and inane conversations like this:
RUBE TOURIST: [as the bomb-rigged bus gets to LAX] We're at the airport.
OTHER PASSENGER: Yeah, so?
RUBE TOURIST: I already seen the airport.
Ugh, just shut up.
We think of this as being a Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock movie, but Bullock is billed third (after Dennis Hopper) and doesn't appear until the 31-minute mark. She was the least famous of the three leads at the time, and the one who benefited most from Speed's success. Reeves had been in several high-profile films (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Parenthood, Point Break), while the biggest thing Bullock had done was Demolition Man, which came out while Speed was being filmed.
Speed launched Sandy to the top for the rest of the '90s, with starring vehicles like The Net, Hope Floats, Practical Magic, Forces of Nature and an ill-advised Speed sequel (which made more at the box office than Practical Magic did, by the way). Speed remained her biggest hit until The Proposal, 13 years later. Adjusted for inflation, it's still her third best, after The Blind Side and Gravity. (Adjusted for inflation, Speed is Keanu Reeves' number three as well, after The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix.)
Finally, Speed gave us a shorthand method for describing gimmicky, easy-to-understand movie plots set in confined locations. The recent hit Non-Stop, in which Liam Neeson must comply with a terrorist's demands or see airline passengers bumped off mid-flight, is Speed on a plane. Tony Scott's Unstoppable was Speed on a train. Grand Piano? Speed in a concert hall. Even some of the traps in the Saw movies have a Speed-like quality to them: the minute you stop doing [X], [Y] will happen.
Speaking of Saw, Speed ends with Dennis Hopper's head getting lopped off. I don't have anything to say about it, but how great is that? So great.
When Speed was released, on June 10, 1994...
- It took in $14.5 million its first weekend -- not a huge splash (it was the 14th best opening of 1994), but enough for first place. It supplanted The Flintstones, which had held the top spot for two weeks. Fellow new release City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold took third place. The rest of the top 10 that weekend included Maverick, Renaissance Man, Beverly Hills Cop III, The Cowboy Way, When a Man Loves a Woman, The Crow and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
- Speed eventually made $121 million in the U.S., plus another $229 million overseas. The total gross made it the number five movie worldwide for all of 1994, separated from number four (The Mask) by just $1.2 million.
- If you listened to the radio on your way to the theater, you probably heard All-4-One's "I Swear," which was then on week four of its 11-week reign at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Other big hits that week: "I'll Remember" by Madonna, "Any Time, Any Place/And On and On" by Janet Jackson, "Regulate" by Warren G, "The Sign" and "Don't Turn Around" by Ace of Base, and "Baby I Love Your Way" by Big Mountain.
- Two people that most Americans had never heard of, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, had two days to live before they would be murdered by an unknown assailant (O.J. Simpson) and become household names. Seven days after Speed hit theaters and dazzled audiences with scenes of high-speed chases through L.A.'s freeways, audiences were treated to the far less thrilling sight of O.J. Simpson driving his Ford Bronco slowly across those same freeways.
- Olympic diver Tom Daley and actors Moises Arias (The Kings of Summer) and Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) were all newborn babies. Now they are 20 years old! (We did the math ourselves.)
- On TV, Turner Classic Movies and the FX channel were both brand new. DirecTV launched a week later (same day as O.J.'s Bronco chase). Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Arsenio Hall Show had recently aired their final episodes, causing great sadness among their respective fans, known as Trekkies and Arse-Halls.
- One day earlier, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes from TLC had set her boyfriend's shoes on fire, burning down the couple's mansion. It would prove to be the second most embarrassing incident in Left Eye's career, after being named Left Eye.
- Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley were newlyweds! They'd gotten married two weeks earlier. By now, everyone was surprised it had lasted this long.
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