In 1996, the Associated Press ran an article about Sylvie McCann, a seemingly ordinary woman from Burlington, Vermont. A fuel company clerk in her mid-30s, McCann became temporarily worthy of coverage because she was, as the AP described, the “guru of Keanuology.” At the time, McCann published Zero Distortion, a Keanu Reeves fanzine with around 130 subscribers around the world. In her words, Keanu “is an artist, he is mystery, he is a font of self-discovery.” Her newsletter wasn’t a typical fan club gossip rag; rather, the AP wrote its “editorial direction focused on celebrating Reeves' mystique, his nomadic spirit, and his romantic mixture of vulnerability and exoticism.”
What was deemed unusual enough to warrant a nationally syndicated profile in 1996 has become commonplace in 2019. Hardly a day passes without some kind of Keanu Reeves content dominating my timeline, whether stories of his camaraderie with mere mortals, photographic evidence of his respect for women, or his recently announced motion-capture performance in the video game Cyberpunk 2077. Despite a few viral naysayers, we’ve all seemed to decide that Keanu is an unequivocal, unquestionable force for good. First, a man, then a meme, and now, like Neo, a messiah.
Many words have been devoted to the homoerotic broetry of Point Break, the zen transcendence of The Matrix, and the relentless physical skill expressed in the John Wick movies. Fewer have been written about Speed, a straight-forward action spectacle from Dutch cinematographer and future Twister director Jan de Bont, which turned 25 this month. It’s the movie that made Sylvia McCann herself a fan all those years ago: “'Wherever in a scene he was, your eyes went there.''
The lack of love for Speed isn’t exactly a surprise. When it was just an idea on paper, nobody wanted anything wanted to do with it. Up-and-comer Quentin Tarantino turned down the project; a who’s who of Hollywood leading men, such as Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and, uh, two separate Baldwin brothers, said no to the lead role. Almost everyone who passed on the screenplay, penned by future Justified creator Graham Yost, gave the same reason: it was too much like Die Hard.
Speed, like Die Hard, is as high concept as ‘90s action movies went: our hero, Jack Traven, is a cop trying to defuse a bomb on a bus that will detonate if the bus drops below 50 miles per hour. Also like Die Hard, it’s largely confined to a single space. The first sequence, when Traven and his partner rescue a group of hostages stuck in the booby-trapped elevator of an office building, was even allegedly inspired by de Bont’s own experience getting stuck on an elevator on the set of Die Hard. McClaine and Traven are also both somewhat average action heroes, with smaller frames and closer-cropped hair than the hard bodies and big mullets of Stallone and Van Damme. John McTiernan, the director of Die Hard, was the first one to get the call about Speed. When McTiernan said no, 20th Century Fox got the next best thing: de Bont, who had worked as the director of photography on, wait for it, Die Hard.
But there’s a clear difference between Die Hard and Speed, which is maybe why Speed hasn’t claimed its rightful place in the Keanu canon. Die Hard is about the individual — the lone wolf John McClaine, shooting his way through the terrorists — but Speed isn’t really about Reeves. It’s about the collective. It’s not just one of Keanu’s best movies; it’s one of the best movies about public transportation. Speed refutes one of the most pervasive myths about metropolitan transit systems in the U.S. — that no one rides the bus in Los Angeles — with its economically and racially diverse ensemble of riders, who must work together and with Jack Traven to keep the bus going until the bomb is dismantled.
The passengers include a typical group of people you might see on public transportation: an over-eager tourist with no sense of boundaries; an uptight woman who says she stopped driving to calm her nerves; a well-dressed elderly couple; a girl taking the bus because her car is in the shop. For the most part, these people remain only faces, but their bodies are constantly shown in the background, just past the big name on the poster. This is a group of people brought together by extraordinary circumstances who must put their individuality aside to survive. The white-collar office workers Traven saves at the beginning of the film need to be rescued, but the working people who ride the bus don’t really have any choice but to pitch in. Sandra Bullock takes the wheel, the other passengers rally to keep the wounded driver alive, and everyone offers as much moral support as they can.
As its title suggests, Speed is, above all else, a monument to momentum, a fast, furious, and futurist vision of cinema as a machine for delivering relentless emotional pleasure. It’s a rollercoaster of a movie and it’s not embarrassed about that. But “going fast” isn’t synonymous to most people’s experiences of public transit. As a New Yorker, I’m used to buses tip-toeing through traffic and not infrequently breaking down, and I’m sure the experience of the average Angeleno is similar. I can’t even imagine a bus reaching 50 miles per hour, let alone staying above that.
Thanks to the slow creep of the city of Los Angeles across the California landscape, the bus is able to keep going for longer than it ever could in New York. Speed also documents urban sprawl and overdevelopment; for the most part, we avoid familiar landmarks or over-filmed vistas. This is a city of anonymous office towers, half-built freeways, and concrete as far as the eye can see. Eventually, the bus runs out of civilization and is forced to drive around the runaway of LAX over and over again. There is no city, beyond its transit system.
The film’s villain, played by a deliciously unhinged Dennis Hopper, turns a vital public service against the city and the marginalized parts of the population who depend upon it. It’s easy to imagine, were Speed to really happen, what might unfold in the aftermath: increased surveillance, and a decrease in transit service as enterprising automotive lobbyists argue that the “vulnerability” of public transportation to terrorist attacks is a reason we should dismantle it and make people buy cars instead. In reality, the bomber in Speed wouldn’t be an ex-cop with a brain cooked by cable news out for some extra retirement cash. It’d be Elon Musk.
It’s not hard to imagine a version of Speed that doesn’t star Keanu Reeves, so the fact that it does in fact star him has additional resonance. Keanu — the ever-Ted, the chill cyberpunk prophet was the perfect avatar for Generation X. When Jack Traven first boards the bus to try to defuse the bomb, a young, nervous-looking rider thinks Traven is there to arrest him, and pulls a gun. To calm him, Traven says that they’re not cop and criminal right now: “We’re just two cool guys hanging out.” Even when he was playing a cop, Keanu was still just a cool guy hanging out. Traven is peak ‘90s: flannel jacket, White Bronco, and probably a Candlebox tape in the glovebox. Few male movie stars represented the culture of their era like Keanu: his racial ambiguity, indifference to sexual categories, youthful recklessness, and subtly jacked physique all made him a new and unique screen presence in American movies. Keanu contained multitudes beyond his seemingly vacant stare, and was thus the perfect action hero to embody the power of the group.
Speed might scare some viewers away from their morning commute, but the movie inadvertently captures what’s special about public transit. Whether we want them to or not, buses, trains, and other shared means of transportation bring us into contact with the world beyond ourselves. Though it may be the least Keanu of Keanu’s major movies, I can see why Speed sold Sylvia McCann on Keanu: more than almost any of his other films, it actually requires him to be a persona, not a person. His blank and often affectless style is a mirror that reflects the actors around him and the audience that watches. Even today, his real-life personality echoes what made him essential to the film’s success: His willingness to break down the barriers between celebrity and private citizen and act like a normal human to the non-famous is exactly the kind of behavior that public transportation encourages. On the bus, even Keanu Reeves is one of us; we’re all just trying to get where we’re going.