Sunday, March 22, 2009

SPEED - Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1994) Fox Home Video

Jan De Bont’s Speed (1994) is a high octane action/thriller with a one hit wonder premise written by Graham Yost. In a nutshell, a Los Angeles city bus has been rigged with a bomb that will explode if its speed drops below 50mph. That this threadbare plotline could sustain a nearly two hour movie seems initially improbable, particularly as the leading man is Keanu Reeves: a stilted performer whose very declaration “There’s a bomb on the bus!” seems to have been misinterpreted or read off a delayed text on a malfunctioning teleprompter.

Despite what seem to be insurmountable shortcomings, Speed clings together as compelling entertainment, garnering our interest, respect and sustained disbelief in the improbability of the exercise along the way. It's really difficult to assess why the film works but it does and that's all you really need to know before delving more deeply into his very shallow plot.

The story begins inside a high rise where a group of businessmen and women are trapped in an elevator rigged to explode by blackmailer/madman Howard Payne (Denis Hopper). Enter L.A.P.D’s SWAT team fronted by Jack Trevan (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels). Attempting to barter with Howard by telephone for the lives of the hostages, Jack instead departs from the scripted negotiations and, together with Harry, rescues all of the men and women seconds before Howard detonates the elevator. Although Howard escapes capture, Jack and Harry are made public heroes and receive citations for valor from their precinct.

But something is clearly wrong. Howard was going to detonate the elevator anyway. He wasn't interested in money or negotiating for other perks. He was simply out for blood, the pleasure derived from taking lives his primary objective. After his promotion, Jack assumes he has seen the last of Howard, a naïve assumption refocused after Howard detonates another bomb on board a buss that kills one of Jack’s friends.

Howard seizes the opportunity to play a game of cat and mouse with Jack, informing him that another bus – this one loaded with passengers – is set for a similar fate unless Jack can devise a clever way to rescue them. Aboard this second bus is Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), a good natured gal forced to play the part of the heroine after bus driver, Sam (Hawthorne James) is accidentally struck by a wayward bullet. Jack makes chase in a commandeered Jaguar, boarding the bus and successfully steering it through the crowded streets, byways and highways of greater Los Angeles.

Jack discovers that Howard has rigged a hidden camera on board to keep track of the passengers on closed circuit TV. Jack radios Harry with this info and Harry patches in his own video feed, recorded back and then looped so that Howard thinks nothing has changed. Meanwhile Jack begins to evacuate everyone on board except for himself and Annie. Someone has to keep the bus moving at 50mph. Knowing that Howard will eventually discover his rouse, Jack rigs an escape for him and Annie. The two jump to safety as the bus continues to endlessly circle around an abandoned airport terminal.

Outraged and more insane than ever, Howard stalks Annie and takes her as his hostage aboard a moving subway. He straps her with a belt of explosives and forces a showdown between him and Jack. One way or another Howard is determined that they are all going to die unless Jack can be clever once again.

Speed is a movie so feeble in its premise that it boggles the mind, yet even more so when one considers just how entertaining the film actually is. Andrzej Bartkowiak’s cinematography, Jon Wright’s film editing and Mark Mancina’s gripping score all conspire to develop and exploit the thrills, chills and narrow escapes of our stars from certain peril - even when Yost’s screenplay struggles desperately for something intelligent to say.

Clearly, Speed is a film where style alone is triumphant over substance. There's no other way to explain its appeal. Perhaps the only unforgiveable moment in the film is its shamless rip off of William Friedkin's The French Connection. Annie accidentally plows into a baby carriage while driving the bus down a city street. In Friedkin's film Gene Hackman narrowly misses a pedestrian crossing the street. But the baby carriage is a MacGuffin – pushed by a bag lady, not with an infant inside, as Annie originally presumes – but brimming over with empty beer cans collected for recycle money. Speed is exonerated from its simplistic bad taste by its clever and slick marketing. It’s an action/thriller with few contemporary equals. I guess you could say it's so bad it's good.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray bests the studio’s previously released Five Star Edition on practically every level – delivering a crisp, clean image with fully saturated colors, strong contrast levels and an excellent smattering of fine details throughout. DNR has been applied, but the film still retains its filmic quality. Regrettably, Fox has only given us a single layered transfer.

Flesh tones are a tad more orange than expected. But image detail is generally good. The PCM 5.1 Dolby audio delivers a real kick. No 7.1 on this outing but Fox gives us two separate audio commentaries, a trivia track, a ‘game’ feature and theatrical trailer to peruse.

Why Fox Home Video continues to reduce its special features previously made available on standard DVD in abundance on titles like Speed is beyond me. Suffice it to say, if the studio is planning to re-release the same titles currently available on Blu-Ray in the next few years with all of those extras we already own elsewhere, this is one collector who will not be running out to buy yet another copy of any film he already owns!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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