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. As movie premises go, this one is absolutely ridiculous, right? You'd have been forgiven for thinking so, at least, as few involved with Jan de Bont's "Speed," which was released by 20th Century Fox on June 10, 1994, could have anticipated its popularity. The film was a runaway hit, winning two Oscars and grossing over $350 million worldwide. Now, 20 years later, it's a celebrated relic of an era before blockbuster filmmaking was so awash in digital wizardry, an era when practical movie magic sold the highest of concepts to the masses.
For actor Keanu Reeves, who starred as the film's hero, LAPD S.W.A.T. officer Jack Traven, it feels like that long ago if only because so much has changed over the last two decades. Though he had already starred in Kathryn Bigelow's "Point Break," it was "Speed" that turned him into an action star Hollywood would test in films like "Johnny Mnemonic," "Chain Reaction" and "The Matrix" throughout the rest of the '90s. He looks back on the film today as a fond memory in the unassuming early years of his career.
"I think there's something that people respond to in the film in the sense that it feels so accessible and human, in a way," Reeves says. "There's a vulnerability to it. Having participated in that, and having had a great opportunity, and then to be here 20 years later, it feels like that came from a more innocent time."
It also came from a time when audiences only knew actress Sandra Bullock, if at all, from work in comedies like "Love Potion No. 9" or futuristic actioner "Demolition Man" opposite Sylvester Stallone. It was "Speed" that sent her career soaring, but, of course, she couldn't have possibly seen that coming.
"I don't think anyone had any idea what was going to happen with that film," the Oscar-winning actress says. "If someone says they did, they're lying — unless in the editing process they felt something come together. But I certainly didn't feel it. I think we were sort of ridiculed a bit for being the 'low budget bomb-on-the-bus movie.' Not that I cared. I was just so happy to have a job and that I got to work with Keanu. I was grateful no matter what it was."
Indeed, Bullock wasn't at all ideal for Fox at the time. The list of more established actresses who were up for the role is long and considerable, from Meryl Streep to Kim Basinger and all points in between. They all turned it down, unmoved by the outlandish concept. But director Jan de Bont fought for Bullock, who had the girl-next-door look and appeal that he felt the role of bus-riding graphic designer (turned bus-driving heroine) Annie needed.
"Initially every studio wants bigger stars for lead roles, and I understand that," de Bont says. "But I could not see Julia Roberts driving this bus. I could not see several other actresses. I would never believe they would ever even be on a bus. I felt I needed an actress who you could believe would have taken the bus, and Sandra had this kind of every day look – I mean that in a good way — in the way she dresses, the way she behaves, very casual."
The character of Annie was as important as Jack Traven, de Bont says, because "she had to keep this whole team together and keep the tension going. And responses — secondary reactions are really key in movies like this. How real are they? How believable are they? She did a fantastic job on that. She was exactly what I hoped for, and thank God the studio, at the very last moment, let me choose her."
The ever-affable Bullock remains indebted to the director, with whom she worked once more on the film's ill-fated sequel in 1997, for going to the mat for her. "He chose me over so many people that probably would have helped that movie get kicked off in a bigger way," she says. "He gave me the opportunity. So I've got to say, he had some pretty big balls. And I'm grateful for his large balls. And you can quote me on that. And if you can get a visual to go along with that quote, that would be great!"
The actor also thinks back fondly to the partnership Jack strikes up with Annie, how they support each other and make it through the day together. And that had to be seeded off-camera if it was going to show up on film at all. "I remember Jan kept having me come back in and audition with the ever-so-beautiful Keanu with some fold-out chairs pretending I was driving," Bullock recalls. Part of that was due to the director's need to sell the studio on her virtues, but it also helped lay the groundwork for an eventual camaraderie captured in behind-the-scenes footage of the two actors playing and laughing together on set. (The two would work together again on the romance drama "The Lake House" 12 years later.)
Reeves, however, as countless individuals interviewed for this piece attest, is a much shier, much more private and withdrawn person than his co-star. It took someone with the intangible spark of a Sandra Bullock to draw him out of his shell, a curiosity you can still see play out in the film to this day as Annie flirts with a Jack ambivalent about taking his mind off the emergency at hand.
"His type of acting has always been a little bit awkward," de Bont confides. "It's almost like that syndrome where people have trouble expressing themselves emotionally and they don't want to give that away; they want to keep it to themselves. I thought that was going to be the hardest part. But still, there's something to it, which is in a way kind of interesting. Keanu is not a regular action hero. He acts a little bit from a meter or three feet away. He kind of sees himself acting and then he looks back from it and then tries to adjust. There's a double personality on the set and it's kind of interesting."
De Bont is also quick to point out that the film, at least beginning with the bus portion, almost takes place in real time. So it's difficult to go to find extremes in any sort of relationship or love interest angle. "If you meet somebody for the first time, in two hours, how can you actually come to a complete resolved relationship," he asks rhetorically. "It's impossible." It also, funnily enough, gets at the heart of Annie's warning at the end of the film that relationships that start "under intense experiences" never work out.
For Reeves, the film walked that line very well simply because it never goes too far. "I think the bonding that goes on through high tension and confrontation and duress and crisis is real," he says. "And I think that they made a nice couple. They were opposites of a kind, but also the same. Because Annie, in the heightened situation, rises to it as well. In terms of the love story, they liked each other and they bonded through the experience. I liked that it wasn't too far. It was heightened, of course, and there's some playful dialogue in it, but I think that's part of the charm of the film, and charm, when it works in movies, is great. You enjoy seeing this couple together."
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