There are a handful of films that you can point to and label them as undisputed classics in the action genre. There are many disposable features that saturate the market which can be cheesy fun when the right mood strikes, but when a film is done right it takes you on a special journey. This is the case with 1994 action thriller Speed from director Jan de Bont (The Haunting) in his feature directorial debut. Much like Die Hard the premise is simple to follow and slightly outlandish, but it is executed with a technical eye and a sense of unyielding fun that you cannot help but fall under its spell. Written by Graham Yost (Justified) as an ode to the classic Runaway Train, the film cemented Keanu Reeves as a bankable action star after his turn in Point Break and provided a breakout role for Sandra Bullock. Made for a mere $30 million, the film was a box office hit worldwide with a gross of $350 million. Over 25 years later, the film is just as thrilling of an experience as ever.
Before we even get to the bus portion of the film, the story brilliantly introduces us to the madman behind the insane journey we are about to embark upon. Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider) is a man on a mission, and that mission is to hold an elevator full of people hostage for a $3 million ransom via a bomb threat. In swift succession, we learn that Howard is unafraid to take lives when it interferes with his plans and that he is a brilliant planner when it comes to mass destruction. Unfortunately for Howard, LAPD SWAT bomb disposal officers Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels, Dumb and Dumber) arrive on the scene and know a thing or two about thwarting the best laid plans. It is Jack specifically who raises the ire of Howard, who survives what is believed to be a deadly explosion to plan his next steps. Jack’s position as a “hero cop” is short-lived as Howard announces his revenge plan in a fiery manner. Howard has strapped a bomb to a city bus that will be activated once it accelerates above 50mph and will detonate if it drops below it after that unless he gets his ransom money.
Pop quiz, hot shot! What do you do? The answer for Jack is simple; he will have to make his way on to that bus and find a way to save all of the poor, unlucky souls who occupy the space. This initial prologue is both breathlessly entertaining – a lady almost gets sliced in half by an elevator – and important to grounding the emotional stakes. The final piece of this comes in the form of Annie (Sandra Bullock), a passenger on the bus who has to take over driving duties once the driver accidentally gets shot. In terms of characterization, Annie is given the short end of the stick, but Bullock does a fair job of elevating the material she is given while simultaneously giving us a glimpse of the Sandy we will fall in love with in subsequent years. Reeves would get stronger as an actor, but he does a fine job for the type of role he is playing. His willingness to perform a lot of his own stunts only adds to the authenticity of the film. It is Hopper who steals the show, though, with one of the most memorable action villain roles this side of Hans Gruber. A great villain can do wonders for a film’s longevity in the culture.
Characterization is all well and good, but the main reason people come to this film is for the thrilling action that permeates the story from beginning to end. Most recently, Mad Max: Fury Road was cited as being a nearly non-stop action sequence, and Speed operates in a very similar manner. From the moment the bus gets rolling, the script offers up sequence after sequence of obstacles from Jack trying to jump from a moving car into the bus to the bus crashing through a densely populated downtown area and so much more. The special thing about Speed is that it was made during a time where nearly all of these special effects were done practically through a combination of models and real-life stunts being performed. CGI has made many things easier and more safe to accomplish these days, but there is just something so satisfying about seeing these stunts done practically with just a little bit of occasional computer assistance. Speed is one of the all-time great action films and will continue to be for some time thanks to the ingenious skills implemented in the production. It does not get much better for action fans.
Speed makes its long-awaited 4K UHD Blu-Ray debut with a stunning 2160p HDR10 transfer that allows the film to look better than it ever has. When compared to the old Fox Blu-Ray, this disc offers monumental improvements in all respects. That release was plagued with edge enhancement and poor black levels, among other issues. This new 4K scan has a lovely amount of natural film grain that allows this movie to shine and gives a lot of pleasing texture and detail to the transfer. For the first time on home entertainment, you can clearly see specific text such as name tags on bus drivers and blueprint details. The image presents with a miraculous amount of depth that makes this California landscape feel more three dimensional than ever. The improvements in contrast and overall clarity are outstanding, especially when you look at the interior of the bus and the clothing of the passengers.
The UHD disc contains very deep colors throughout even with the prevalence of earth tones due to the setting. The most impressive moments of HDR implementation are in the film’s various explosions as fireballs glow with a pleasing intensity. White levels are brighter and offer a greater stability without veering into blooming. Black levels are extremely deep and allow the picture to maintain an excellent amount of depth and detail in darker environments. This especially comes in handy during the scene at the beginning in the elevator shaft. Skin tones look natural and the clarity of the transfer gives you a great amount of facial detail including the cuts and grime from being in these crashes. This transfer is a treat for fans of the film. You honestly could not ask for better from the folks at Disney and 20th Century Studios.
The 4K UHD Blu-Ray comes with a stellar DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless audio tracks that offer a perfect representation of the film. This is the same track from the previous Blu-Ray rather than a new Dolby Atmos presentation, but it is hard to fault the studio for not messing with what was not broken. The award-winning sound design opens up to the world in a really fulfilling way. The movie offers up nearly non-stop chances for the track to show off with the bus action really giving the speakers a workout. In these scenes, the soundstage demonstrates how open and rich it is in its nuanced execution.
The score from Mark Mancina is presented with an impressive amount of clarity and fidelity. Music is used skillfully throughout the presentation, but it never overpowers the dialogue or other important information. The dialogue that is so key to bringing more charm to the proceedings comes through clearly and never falls victim to any digital anomalies. Rear speakers get an immense amount of activity throughout, especially as the bus is careening through the city. The low-end support is very hard hitting with plenty of explosions and crashes shaking the room. The film has always had an excellent audio track in the high definition age, and that continues on this release.
- Audio Commentary #1: Director Jan de Bont gives a very incisive commentary track in which he details what attracted him to make Speed his feature directorial debut, his love of miniatures, injecting realism into the insanity, choosing his Director of Photography, his thoughts on action films post-9/11 and many more interesting capsules of information. He is steady and thoughtful throughout.
- Audio Commentary #2: Writer Graham Yost and Producer Mark Gordon provide a very lively track in which the duo excitedly discuss nearly every aspect of the film from the soaring score to the violence in the film and Keanu Reeves as an action star. Of the two commentary tracks, this one is a bit more entertaining, but both are very much worth a listen.
- Action Sequences
- Bus Jump: A ten-minute featurette which gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of the infamous “bus jump” sequence in which you see the team coming together to figure out how to do the stunt safely .
- Metrorail Crash: A six-minute featurette which gives the same treatment to the “metrorail crash” in the film. It is fascinating to see all of the practical stunts performed in the film.
- Inside Speed
- On Location: A seven-minute featurette in which the cast and crew discuss the filming of the feature from the comfort of the set. This gives details on the filming of all the crazy bus action and more.
- Stunts: A twelve-minute exploration of all the wild stunts in the film including the careful planning, the actors performing some of their actual stunts and more.
- Visual Effects: A nine-minute look at the visual effects in the film mostly focusing on practical effects such as scale models along with some computer enhancement.
- HBO First Look – The Making of Speed: A 24-minute special in which Dennis Hopper takes you through the production of the film in a promotional manner. Even though this was made to sell the film, there are many worthwhile insights from the cast and crew.
- Extended Scenes: Six scenes totaling twelve minutes including Jack getting some rounds off at the beginning and striking Howard, a longer post-ceremony celebration in the bar, more discussion of Annie’s job and more.
- Trailers & TV Spots: Eleven promotional pieces totaling eight minutes are provided here which sell the film in various entertaining ways.
- Speed Music Video by Billy Idol: A nearly five-minute video that features some scenes from the film interspersed throughout the proper video. The song was not really for me.
Speed is the type of action classic that many may try to replicate, but few will succeed in capturing all of the elements that this film had going for it. The amount of practical filmmaking that went into creating this non-stop thrill ride is simply staggering, and the cast that was assembled only serves to elevate the film that much higher. Disney and 20th Century Studios have released a long-awaited 4K UHD Blu-Ray that offers up a powerhouse A/V presentation and a host of interesting supplemental features. If you hold this film up as a favorite, you owe it to yourself to own this one in the best format possible. It will make you appreciate the film in a whole new light. Highly Recommended
Speed will be available to purchase on 4K UHD Blu-Ray and Digital on May 4, 2021.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the 4K UHD Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Buena Vista Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.