Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Under Intense Circumstances
You would think that I’d be posting new pieces more often these days. At least, that was the plan I had several weeks ago since I feel like I can try focusing on that a little more now but unfortunately I was waylaid by other matters involving life and getting a car, things like that. The good news is that I do have a car now, one that probably makes me look like I’m the lead in a quirky indie or something but I’m very happy with what I wound up with and there’s something oddly personal about owning this particular car that makes me feel good every time I use it. And from driving once again I’m now back to continuing to think about summer movies. The very concept of them used to seem more special than they do now. Part of that is because I’m getting older, I know that. Believe me, I know that. But everything about them just seems less fun than they used to be. Movies used to be movies. Now, they all seem to be part of giant franchises and inter-connected with stories that haven’t even begun to be wrapped up when the credits roll and if a movie released during the summer isn’t an established property, isn’t something that’s clearly being set up to establish a whole franchise or something, is presented as this special anomaly which needs to be explained to people. I guess around the point of the first X-MEN some of these films began to play more like elaborate pilots than anything, setting up the world and characters at the expense of an actual narrative since they keep implying that the big battle or confrontation or whatever will occur in parts two and three. Yeah, that worked really well when it came to the MATRIX sequels and since most films suck anyway at least some of the time those would-be sequels never wind up happening anyway so it’s almost as if there was never a movie to begin with. If THE FUGITIVE, a pretty great summer movie which was of course based on a famous open ended TV show, were made now it would end with Richard Kimble still on the run or some other giant plot point left hanging in order to lead into further adventures for Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. And then we wouldn’t have the movie that THE FUGITIVE is. Something about that lack of willingness to make a movie that tells an actual, complete narrative seems to cripple storytelling in a non-stop attempt to emphasize CGI bloat (insert obligatory comment about hating 3-D here, I guess) and it all makes summer moviegoing unfortunately kind of a drag. At least it is for me. I wish things were otherwise.
So I may as well drift back into memory and think of a summer movie that I like, one which also has to do with driving—I’ll gladly admit that I’ve been a big fan of SPEED ever since seeing it on opening day back in 1994 at the Village in Westwood (huge, gorgeous theater that I never go to anymore because I never go to Westwood anymore. Does anybody?). Afterwards I drove over to Century City to see CITY SLICKERS 2: THE LEGEND OF CURLY’S GOLD which was a pretty big letdown in comparison and only revealed that much more how much SPEED delivered on being a hugely enjoyable popcorn movie in all the right ways and a few weeks later on my birthday I couldn’t think of anything better then going back to the Village to see it once again. Life was just simpler in those days, I suppose. A big surprise hit at the time, maybe because it’s ultimately kind of light and ‘pop’ as far as R-rated action movies go SPEED maybe hasn’t stuck around much in the public consciousness as much as a few other films from those days have but taking another look at what it accomplishes is a reminder of just how well it really does work. As well as being an interesting comparison point to what I was just talking about—it’s a plot which is a clear one-off in concept that was forced into being a sequel, to make it a franchise by a studio who couldn’t see just how foolhardy that was. The lead actor bailed because he clearly knew it would suck and, well, it did suck. Let’s face it, there isn’t much about the concept of SPEED which particularly lends itself to being a franchise—somehow DIE HARD was able to pull it off and ironically what was at one point going to be a cruise ship setting for the third DIE HARD film had roots in what ultimately became the sequel to SPEED, but let’s ignore that for now. In recent years it’s seemed like the lesson the studios have learned from this sort of thing is to display less interest in such one-off concepts, no matter how commercial they might be on their own, because if there’s no sequel to be had then what’s the point, right? This is starting to feel all the more unfortunate as time goes on but all by itself SPEED is still pretty damn great, a terrific example of what Hollywood entertainment sometimes can be if all the right elements are allowed to come together. Absurd, yes. Unbelievable, definitely and I can remember a particularly good Janeane Garofalo joke back in the day that nailed the very essence of this (I’d include it here but you kind of need to hear it in her voice). But for what it tries to do I can’t imagine it working better. The way these things usually turn out it’s almost like a small miracle.
Plot summary? You actually want a plot summary for SPEED? Fine. When an office building elevator in downtown L.A. is hijacked by a madman (Dennis Hopper) threatening to blow it up bomb squad hot shot Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) are able to save the day with actions that result in the bomber presumably being killed in an explosion following a confrontation between them. But it turns out that the maniac is just regrouping and he soon makes his presence known once again with another challenge for Jack: a bomb on a L.A. bus that is just entering the freeway, rigged to explode killing everyone on board if it ever goes below 50 mph. Jack frantically makes his way to the bus, gets onboard and with cute passenger Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) forced into taking the wheel they have to figure out a way to navigate the streets of Los Angeles without ever slowing down as the elusive bomber taunts Jack over the phone whenever possible. Or, to quote Homer Simpson’s legendary summary of the plot when he can’t quite think of the title, it’s “about a bus that has to SPEED around the city keeping its SPEED over fifty and if its SPEED dropped it would explode! I think it was called THE BUS THAT COULDN’T SLOW DOWN.”
One thing that occurred to me early on was that if this film were made now all the bus passengers would be on blackberries or iPhones instead of reading newspapers and working on their crossword puzzles—as it is, it’s all the better that these people are isolated from the rest of the world—but aside from small points like this very little about the actual filmmaking of SPEED has dated much at all even though, like many examples of this sort of mass-entertainment of years past, the notion of a movie centered around saving the lives of barely a dozen people on a city bus now seems flat out quaint. The likes of the L.A.-set LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD feel very much a part of the eighties stylistically when compared SPEED (this is in no way a criticism of the earlier films, just an observation) and that nineties setting which is a little more recognizable to me means that even now it hits me right in the sweet spot, with a slickness and genuine level of energetic craftsmanship from director Jan de Bont, a veteran cinematographer (including on DIE HARD and LETHAL WEAPON 3 actually) here making his directorial debut. And he infuses every scene with such an energy that is still so undeniable that it’s more than a little surprising that he was never able to rise to this level again in any of his subsequent films. Everything onscreen has a definite life to it, a tangible quality no matter how implausible things get and that combined with some very early digital work which is barely noticeable anyway it’s a reminder of how much I was enjoying some movies during this period of the decade before Michael Bay had to go ruin everything by turning up and sending us all spiraling down into a pit of cinematic hell. Yes, the screenplay by Graham Yost (which apparently contains early dialogue work by an uncredited Joss Whedon) is totally implausible and the film seems to be pretty much aware of that all the way through but approaches things with a mixture of conviction and bemusement, with bits like the scene with the baby carriage showing how it’s fully aware of all this ridiculousness yet always keeping us aware of the gravity of the situation for these people onboard. There are many other examples of this kind of action movie that also seem to contain a mixture of the right elements but they don’t seem to go together as well as everything does here. It is pop filmmaking, unquestionably, but pop filmmaking at its very best.
From the rising tension of the opening elevator setpiece to each beat laid out as that speedometer on the bus goes over fifty, everything about SPEED just works beautifully no matter how implausible it ultimately is, as if the approach to making it is to mix what then still felt like a certain kind of classical filmmaking, even down to what is pretty much a musical overture over the opening credits, mixed with that slick, funtime nineties style that de Bont brought to the material which seemed so fresh at the time--a few particular deaths aside, it’s a fairly soft R that would no doubt be whittled down to a PG-13 today. Every single action beat is enormously well-executed and even the few minutes of downtime between elevator and bus is gotten over with as fast as possible but all the rhythms somehow seem absolutely right. Once things get going the movie hurtles forward like a shot as it builds up to the enormously rewarding payoff of that bus jump with a score by Mark Mancina that I still think is one of the very best to ever come out of the Hans Zimmer style. There’s just something pure about it—pure as a movie, pure as a story, pure as action and even the characters are well-established and make sense. The people who populate this bus and essentially being held hostage for ransom (cleverly, it’s a bus with an ad on the back reading “MONEY ISN’T EVERYTHING. (YEAH, RIGHT.)”) may not exactly be three-dimensional or even two-dimensional at times but that doesn’t mean we can’t relate to them, through both the constant stream of wisecracks as well as the more serious stretches—Alan Ruck’s tourist is a doofus, no question about it, but he’s not an idiot and stuck among these cynical Angelenos he’s almost kind of the surrogate for anyone watching this in a multiplex out in the heartland. The seriousness of his “I can’t be here” moment as well as his shell-shocked look after the bus jump seem absolutely correct somehow, bringing the right kind of gravity to the situation without wallowing in it. The movie barely seems part of the real world so as it turns out it’s a perfect fit for Los Angeles, which as we all know barely ever seems to be part of the real world anyway and it totally works as an L.A. movie--much of it was shot on the then-brand new 105 freeway the geography from Venice to the 10 to surface streets to the 105 to LAX makes a surprising amount of sense considering how action movies usually approach such things and even if the passengers on the bus seem to be a little too friendly with each other in a way that isn’t all that believable—hell, such a city bus headed downtown during early morning rush hour would probably be more crowded as well but I kind of doubt anyone who ever saw this movie thought that it needed more extras.
Structurally, the movie knows how to keep moving even as it races towards the climax and the momentum is so strong that it somehow gets away with not getting it to seem like things should be over once it moves to the ransom drop/subway finale. Funny how in terms of a three-act plot structure the bus portion of the movie is basically act two, although going from the 10 freeway to surface streets to the 605 to the airport gives it all a four-act structure within that hour of screentime that is expertly mapped out in the screenplay with even some clever points of misdirection—it always seems a little silly that the injured Harry goes out with them when Hopper’s identity is learned but any concerns that it’s going to be an issue turn out not to matter. The climax feels based on a pretty giant plot hole—after all, one wonders how they’re able to keep a giant explosion at the airport from being reported in the media—but it all works anyway right down to the final moments—the whole speed up to survive thing at the end probably makes as little sense as anything else in the entire film but taken metaphorically it somehow meant something to me in a way I couldn’t explain way back then and it still works for me now that I’m older, still responding to this film just as I did at the time. And that final moment on Hollywood Boulevard just puts me in a good mood, as if we’re easing things to a stop while the movie celebrates just how good it turned out to be. There are probably at least a dozen other flaws that could be nitpicked but to this day I really don’t care—this was the first time I’d watched the movie in several years and it’s kind of a thrill to see just how much pure, unabashed fun it still is.
You could rag on Keanu Reeves all you want and people still do but it’s hard to imagine him being any more ideal as Jack Traven than he is and his unending determination totally does what the part needs to be. The sort of film it is, no one was ever going to get a huge amount of acclaim for this film but they still deserve it--Sandra Bullock building up to superstardom here probably got more heat off it than anyone and she’s absolutely adorable. Joe Morton shouts his lines with total conviction as Lt. McMahon, Jeff Daniels brings the right touch of needed humanity as partner Harry in a similar way that the excellent Alan Ruck does in his role and Dennis Hopper chews his way through all his dialogue as Howard Payne and in the few moments of screentime he has where he gets to interact with somebody there’s a definite sense that they’re deliberately writing dialogue for him to chew his way through as much as possible, a blatant excuse to take advantage of the thrill of putting Dennis Hopper in a film which flat-out works. Among the various familiar faces that turn up here and there one who might be easily missed is THE WEST WING’s Richard Schiff not really doing anything as the subway driver in the climax. This was nowhere near his first film but it’s hard to imagine he ever had one that was less noticeable—on the DVD audio commentary producer Mark Gordon implies that Schiff badly needed a job to keep his SAG health insurance at the time.
SPEED is as entertaining now as it was when it was first released, maybe even more, considering how much the bar has been lowered in terms of just pure directorial craft in these movies since then. And it reaches a level that none of those who made it were able to pull off again. Screenwriter Yost has had great success in television but his feature work on action films such as BROKEN ARROWN and HARD RAIN, two films that contain certain structural similarities but never come anywhere close in terms of effectiveness (as an aside, the enjoyable and informative commentary on the DVD between Yost and producer Mark Gordon feels like an elaborate gag if what’s been reported about most of the dialogue being the work of Whedon, who is never mentioned, is true). It has to be this particular combination of elements --there’s a certain unexpectedly nimble quality to SPEED which balances the jeopardy that is always being felt with a sense of fun that feels truly effortless and everything about it just seems to go together in the best way possible making for the sort of entertainment that I wish could happen more often. I remember reading once how the music cue at the very end when the credits roll was done late in the game when they decided that starting up that (crappy) Billy Idol song which follows shortly right at that moment just didn’t work. SPEED was just one of those movies that needed to be good as it was going to be and all the futzing the studio may have tried to do to ruin it wasn’t going to succeed. Somebody might insist that I’m looking at this one with rose colored glasses. That’s fine. I’m not going to make a claim that it should be called a masterwork of the genre on the level of something like DIE HARD since it’s not quite weighty enough to earn the moniker. But regardless everything it does seems to be exactly what it’s supposed to be, pretty much the opposite of the lousy 1997 sequel SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL, also directed by de Bont but missing things like good action, good plotting, suspense, fun, whatever. I don’t own it on DVD. Does anybody? For that matter, it’s probably agreed that De Bont, with no credits of any kind since 2003’s LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE, never directed another good movie and the shocking success of the lousy TWISTER in 1996 probably seems like even more of a joke now than it did then. I admit, this is one of those movies that I don’t write about very much because there’s not really all that much thematic material to discuss but it’s a film that I unabashedly love regardless. Right now in this summer I’m able to drive out into the streets of L.A. in a car that I feel good about. So with that and the rush of seeing SPEED again fresh in my mind I can’t help but have some hope there might still be a movie this summer—or any summer—that would remind me of those days when I would go to those great theaters in Westwood. That was a long time ago now, but I have to hope.