The Number One Movie in America: Speed

By Sean Collier

February 8, 2020

I believe it was called The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down

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“Speed,” the delightful and endlessly meme-able action classic starring then-ascendant darlings Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, drove its explosive bus through a box-office minefield.

It won its opening weekend, despite surprisingly stiff competition from the live-action “Flintstones” movie (now there’s a forgotten chapter of blockbuster history) and the “City Slickers” sequel. Its second weekend was relatively quiet, with the dark romance “Wolf” as the only major competition. After that, though, the loaded summer of 1994 kept throwing giant obstacles in front of “Speed.”

Weekend three: The wide release of “The Lion King.” Four: the forgotten big-budget superhero movie “The Shadow.” Five: “Forrest Gump.” Six: “True Lies.” Eight: “The Mask.”

The summer of 1994 was a good time to buy stock in popcorn companies, is the point.

Yet through all of that competition, “Speed” kept making money. It would eventually earn more than $121 million, good for eighth on the year-end chart. It finished ahead of “Pulp Fiction,” “Interview With the Vampire,” “Ace Ventura” and “Maverick.”

It even won two Oscars (Sound Editing and Mixing) and was nominated for a third (Editing).

On paper, there’s not a whole lot of distinction between “Speed” and any number of other high-concept action flicks. There’s a maniacal villain (played with delicious zeal by Dennis Hopper), a no-nonsense cop and the promise of great big explosions. Wacky set pieces. Gallows humor. Side characters who show up to quickly advance the plot before vanishing. (Sorry about your car, Tuneman.)

So what’s different?


Well, the chemistry between Bullock and Reeves is great; that’s certainly part of it. More importantly, however, Speed knows and embraces its own silliness — without sacrificing the stakes. The nuts and bolts of the bus’s journey are mostly preposterous. Our vehicular protagonist — because let’s be honest, the bus itself is the hero of this film — is constantly making turns and surviving collisions which should topple and/or destroy it (and absolutely pull its speed below 50 miles per hour). It rolls with a flat tire for about an hour, until the precise moment where the tire failing will add dramatic tension. The bus literally leaps into the air — as if it has both awareness of its surroundings and, uh, legs.

Little of that matters, however, because it’s just so damn fun. Credit the spirit of the film, perhaps, to a young Joss Whedon, who performed an uncredited rewrite of the script (but who is responsible for nearly all the dialogue, according to credited screenwriter Graham Yost). It never descends into pure farce — a few well-timed deaths ensure that — but, years before the latter “Fast and Furious” films remembered what a modern car-action flick is supposed to be, “Speed” knew exactly how to take four wheels and give audiences a good time.

It’s far from perfect; that ending does just keep plodding on. But few ’90s action hits are as enjoyable today, and none may have its legacy.

“Speed” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since the late 1970s. Please listen and subscribe!

Next time: let’s look back at a 1996 fantasy drama starring John Travolta. No, not “Phenomenon,” the other one.



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