Speed raced to the top of the box office when it hit theaters in 1994. The Jan de Bont flick was a commercial and critical success, sending its headlining stars rushing into the big time. Specifically, Speed cemented Keanu Reeves’ place as one of the biggest action stars in Hollywood, and earned Sandra Bullock household name status (and a beefed-up role in the eventual sequel, 1997’s Speed 2: Cruise Control, though that movie is best left in the dustbin of cinematic history). Most impressively, while many other high-octane blockbusters of the era have become a bit less impressive with age, Speed is still a thrill, thanks to its fearless practical effects, solid pacing, and a few intentionally cheesy line reads. It’s the sort of movie you find on cable, remember vaguely, and end up watching to the end, even if you hadn’t intended to — it’s just that irresistibly exctiting.
However, if it’s been a while since you checked out this vintage action vehicle, you might have forgotten some of the film’s finer details. For example, while you probably remember that it largely takes place on a bus with a bomb strapped to it, do you recall how it all begins with an elevator explosion? How about the way it ends with a subway car careening into the road in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre? If not, buckle up: We’re about to take a high-velocity trip down memory lane to highlight some of the things you might’ve forgotten about Speed.
A shoe that gets the shaft
Speed wastes no time at all ramping up tension by showing us that the villain du jour, Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), means business. In the very first scene, he stabs a security guard in the head because the guy dares to question why he’s lurking around the elevators in an office building. Payne’s plot is soon revealed as he takes an elevator full of people hostage and demands a few million dollars of ransom money, lest he blow them all up.
Unfortunately for Howard, the LAPD has something of a dream team in Jack Traven (Reeves) and his partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels), who defy gravity while racing their cruiser to the scene to check out Howard’s hardware for themselves. They quickly realize that his pyro device is probably going to blow up no matter how much money the guy gets, so the two go rogue to find a way to temporarily — very temporarily — stabilize the elevator with a crane and spring these people from their death trap before it plummets downward or detonates. It’s an enormously close call, but they manage to get the very last would-be victim out, just in the nick of time. Instead of being overcome with gratitude, though, all this unfortunate lady has to say about being saved from certain death is that she lost one of her shoes as a result of the death-defying rescue. What a heel.
A different kind of trolley problem
Students of ethics have debated the famous "trolley problem," which zeroes in on the question of what human life is worth, for ages. It’s a thought experiment so arresting, in fact, that it’s become a meme. How does one weigh the value of humanity? How are ethical choices made? What do we define as acceptable loss? Thinkers across time have grappled with these questions via the trolley problem. But for Jack, the answer is surprisingly simple.
Jack and Harry have developed a tradition of posing "pop quiz" questions to one another in tense moments. So, while they’re still elbow deep in their elevator woes, Harry asks Jack what he would do if a terrorist had a hostage and was inching towards an airplane. Jack quickly answers that he would shoot the hostage so that he could more easily get to the bad guy. Harry is a bit stunned by the ruthlessness of his answer — but later, when Howard captures Harry, he encourages that exact same maneuver.
That’s right: Harry tells Jack to shoot him so that he can get to Howard, and Jack obliges. Even by taking Harry "out of the equation," though, Jack still doesn’t get a shot at Howard because he runs off and triggers an explosion that appears to take his life. However, Howard is far from finished with his terrorist plotting, which means Harry has just been permanently relegated to desk duty and walking with a cane for nothing.
A phone call and some payback
One thing that’s very easy to forget about the plot of Speed is that there is a separate bus which actually does blow up before the big chase scene commences. Now, it does require some suspension of disbelief to accept that Howard has put together not one, but two elaborate bus bomb schemes in a matter of months. This is especially striking when one recalls him saying the elevator incident took years to coordinate. Apparently, though, Howard has spent the past few months utterly fixated on getting payback against Jack for foiling his plot (and getting a medal in the process). Apparently, that’s all he needs to make things happen a bit more quickly. Never doubt the power of focus, people — and a bit of practice in supervillainy, what with the elevator crime already under Howard’s belt.
So, before Howard informs Jack that bus number 2525 is out there, strapped with an explosive that will go off if it reaches, then drops below 50 miles per hour, he targets another bus. A bus that just so happens to be driven by someone Jack knows, likes, and sees at a cafe shortly before everything goes boom, in fact. Oh, and Howard also conveniently has the number of a nearby payphone on speed dial, and fully anticipates that Jack will answer it, despite all the chaos exploding around him, just to carry the plot forward. Hollywood logic at its finest, folks!
A carjacking and a crash
After Jack is unable to catch the bus on foot — something Annie (Bullock) was able to do earlier with a cigarette still in hand, by the way — he has to find another way to get to the moving vehicle and either stop it from reaching that critical speed, or keep it moving above that number in perpetuity. Thus, he stalks around the zipping freeway long enough to catch a poor sap (Glenn Plummer) in a convertible Jaguar. Jack promptly seizes the man’s vehicle at gunpoint. Yes, this is a violent carjacking he’s just committed, and it’s not even the last time Jack will do this unfortunate stranger dirty.
After stealing the car from the guy whose name he doesn’t even bother to ask — although we do get "Tuneman" from his custom license plate, and he’s credited as Maurice — Jack then forces him to help by writing down a warning message for the bus driver, sacrificing his door, and holding the wheel while Jack makes a high-speed jump onto the bus. Maurice has to be unbuckled from his seatbelt for all of this, but Jack doesn’t seem too concerned about the man’s safety, even when he leaves him helplessly veering into an exit ramp. Fortunately for Maurice, he has insurance and manages to survive smashing into a bunch of water barrels without being ejected or smushed.
An unexpected showdown
You probably remember that it’s Bullock’s Annie who gets behind the wheel for much of the movie. But what you might not remember is how and why she finds herself steering the proverbial ship. Though Maurice’s note about the bomb ends up plastered to the windshield of the bus, apparently the passengers don’t get a good look at it, because they’re all very confused as to why Jack goes to such trouble to get on board. In fact, one guy even thinks it’s all about him and whips out a gun after Jack identifies himself as an LAPD officer.
We don’t get to find out exactly what crime it is that our frantic new friend has committed in the past, but it must’ve been bad if it warrants his fervent belief that a policeman would jump from a moving vehicle onto another moving vehicle just to get him cornered. That, or he’s a total newbie with no perspective, who’s become consumed by paranoia. Jack tries to talk him down, but another passenger named Ortiz (Carlos Carrasco) jumps him from behind and causes the guy to fire his weapon. A stray bullet hits the driver, Sam (Hawthorne James). Fortunately for Sam, his wounds aren’t fatal, and Jack is able to convince Howard to let the LAPD take the guy to a hospital, despite the rule that none of the hostages are allowed to leave the bus until Howard gets his money.
An eternal acrobat
One of the most striking things about Speed is just how many different ways it finds for Jack to make a dramatic entrance or exit from the bus. Getting on board isn’t quite enough for him, so he proceeds to get back off the bus so he can get under it. He does this by stringing himself up to the back of a truck in a creeper seat.
It’s a terrible idea. He isn’t wearing a helmet, and the tires are starting to fall apart because they jumped a set of spikes to get onto the airport runway. Jack’s rig eventually gets nailed by a loose piece of rubber and he loses his ride. All he has to cling onto is a screwdriver that he’s stabbed into the gas tank. Luckily, Ortiz loosens a piece of floorboard to pull Jack back in. Ultimately, however, all Jack’s effort has done is land him right back where he started with things much worse for the wear, since the rig’s gas is now leaking uncontrollably.
Of course, that jimmied piece of flooring does prove to be useful near the end, when Jack and Annie need another way out after getting everyone else to safety. For Jack’s last crazy move on this bus, he invites her to join him in laying down on this tiny piece of metal and hoping it doesn’t flip as they drop down onto the racing runway. Spoiler: It doesn’t, because this is still a movie.
A baby carriage full of cans
Another wild moment from the film that you might have forgotten about happens when Annie nearly runs over a bunch of kids after nailing a lady’s baby carriage. Yep, that’s right: Annie plows right into a baby carriage, possibly the worst thing a person could hit with a huge speeding vehicle. Things get quite dicey for our "wildcat" driver when the freeway becomes too packed for her to keep up the requisite speed. So, she has to take the action into the city, even though it’s crowded with other cars and pedestrians. Annie proceeds to rough up an innumerable amount of parked vehicles, but the most jaw-dropping collision happens when she runs over a woman’s stroller. Fortunately, there is no baby inside the thing: It is instead packed with a collection of cans that go flying everywhere in the rearview. Who carries cans in a baby carriage? Why doesn’t this woman own the sort of wheeled cart built for this purpose, ubiquitous on city streets everywhere? Who knows.
Relief is short-lived, as within seconds, some more kids get put into the path of this nightmare. They are about to cross the street at an intersection, and, thankfully, jump back just in time to avoid being creamed. In response to this near-disaster, Annie, full of consternation, shouts that all of those darn children aren’t in school when they’re supposed to be. You know, as one does after almost hitting them with a bus.
A bus with wings
Isaac Newton would probably have a few things to say about all of the ways Speed’s bus sidesteps the laws of physics. First, they pull off a 90-degree turn at top speed without tipping the bus over. Then, they come upon a 50-foot piece of unfinished highway and manage to successfully jump over it. In the relevant scene, the bus is inexplicably launched upward by an invisible ramp of some sort, and gets just enough height to make it across the expanse. (Fun fact: If you pause this moment, you’ll notice that the bus is empty of its passengers during this trick.)
It’s not just the bus that bids adieu to scientific norms in this movie. After Jack and Annie make their big escape and leave the bus zooming uncontrollably through the airport, the vehicle crashes into a (hopefully empty) cargo plane that’s being towed elsewhere on the runway, exploding on impact. Somehow, even though everyone within viewing distance of this is shaken by the heat and force of the blast, the driver of the tow truck emerges unscathed. Then, when Howard takes the action underground onto the subway, Jack and Annie find themselves stuck on a speeding machine with a missing piece of track ahead of them again, thus having to try and jump it, yes, again. The car eventually goes flying through the subway system and out onto the street until it finally comes to a stop on Hollywood Boulevard. Because hey, why not?!
A one-track mind
As much as Howard is committed to making life terrible for Jack, his main motivation is, in the end, still surprisingly pedestrian. He really does just want his money — everything else is incidental to that end. Sure, he also likes the idea of dragging Jack back into his mayhem as a bit of vengeance, and he certainly gets a kick out of leading Harry and other officers to his house so that he can set off yet another deadly explosion, just for kicks. However, he makes it crystal clear to Jack and the audience at home that his main drive is plain old greed.
His obsession with money is what he ends up losing his head over (sorry, bad pun) in the end, once he finds out that the LAPD has rigged his bag of cash with a dye pack. Howard isn’t the only one who can hide an explosive, guys. He doesn’t necessarily need Jack or Annie to die, and even begins to offer a bargain to Jack by reaching into the bag to share some of his precious cash in trade for his escape. But once his dough turns purple, he sees red. It’s then that he joins Jack on the roof of the subway car for an ill-advised fist fight, which ends with him being beheaded by a light. Whoops!
A whole lot of dirty jokes
One aspect of Speed you might’ve forgotten about if you saw it as a child is just how many dirty jokes are packed into this movie. Hey, they had to earn that R rating somehow! The first naughty comment comes early in the movie, after Jack and Harry save all the elevator hostages: Jack asks Harry, "Was it good for you?" A few moments later, Harry keeps the tongue-in-cheek commentary coming when they decide their villain has jumped the gun. Harry says, "Maybe he couldn’t hold his wad long enough. It’s a common problem among middle-aged men, or so I’m told."
Oddly enough, it is Ortiz who takes the record for the most adult references, with two lively mentions of Jack’s nether regions. One occurs when he decides Jack must have, erm, a certain kind of fervor for the bus to keep chasing it down, while the other is deployed when he compliments the size of Jack’s man-parts for his daring attempt to go under the bus.
For good measure, the movie also ends with one last sexual reference, after Jack and Annie survive it all. Repeating their running gag of remarking what a bad idea it is to form a relationship based on shared trauma, Annie tells Jack they’ll have to base their relationship on sex instead. They begin moving in that very direction — even as a crowd of onlookers comes along to check out the wreckage that surrounds them.