De Bont: Speed (1994)

In the twenty-first century we’ve become acclimatised to films that draw on the terrifying iconography of the September 11 attacks, but there was also a wave of films, in the mid-1990s, that drew on the first terrorist assault on the World Trade Center. Speed, Jan De Bont’s debut film as director, was perhaps the most evocative of these – an abstraction and dissection of the impact of domestic terrorism on public space that inchoately grasps the possibility of September 11 by its closing scenes. Speed, in turn, gave way to Twister and Speed 2: Cruise Control, a rough trilogy of films that reinvented the chase genre by aiming to create spectacles that were as compact, compressed and breathlessly accelerated as possible.

Although Speed is most iconic for its third act, it remains an incredible three-act treat, taking in every major transit option in Los Angeles as we follow a domestic terrorist, played by Dennis Hopper, through three distinct projects. First, Howard Payne, Hopper’s character, bombs an elevator shaft, and attempts to send an elevator of commuters to their doom, but he’s thwarted by Officer Jack Traven and Detective Harry Temple, played by Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels. Then, in retaliation, Payne rigs up a city bus so that it activates a bomb when it surpasses 50 mph, that will then explode if it drops back down below 50 mph. Fortunately, Jack is able to board the bus, and help steer it to a safe landing, with the help of commuter Annie Porter, played by Sandra Bullock, who takes over when the bus driver is injured. Finally, Jack abducts Annie onto the subway, leading to an underground chase on a speeding train.

In other words, the film takes place in the slipstream around elevator, bus and train – and entirely confines itself to these three set pieces, building character and story in and through the action. Like Twister, it’s basically one string of events, over a twenty-four hour period – in this case, a string of terrorist attacks, rather than a string of tornadoes. Like Twister, too, it starts with a scene that could be a climax in any other film – Payne’s attack on the elevator, which is presaged through a stately credit sequence that anticipates the opening of Panic Room, as the camera tracks down an elevator shaft, as a new credit emerges on each floor.

This first part of the film is largely driven by vertical movement – the elevator poised mid-air, the luxurious tracking-shots that continue to propel us through the shaft, and the extreme high-angle shots that emphasise Payne as he lurks, bomb in hand, at the bottom of the well. In order to combat him, Jack and Harry have to go up to the roof of the building, and then construct an elaborate pulley system that connects the elevator to the tallest radio spire on the roof. A continuous vertical trajectory is created from the tallest single point on the building to the very bottom of the elevator shaft, as Jack and Harry (and the camera) spend most of their time scaling up and down, rather than moving in a horizonal or a lateral manner.

At the very moment that De Bont creates this vertical trajectory, however, the shots from the top of the roof (the first time we really step outside) reveal that we are in Los Angeles, the most horizontally sprawling city in the United States. It’s almost a twist that we’re in LA, given the vertical focus of this opening scene – and De Bont signals that twist in a hyperbolic shot of a police car mounting a rise so rapidly that it simply flies through the air, combining horizontal and vertical movement in one crazy arc. There’s a prescience, here, that the vertical terrorist attack of the first World Trade Center assault doesn’t quite make sense in LA, but that it still needs to be circuited back through LA to properly prepare for the future.

Accordingly, we now shift to the second and most famous part of the film – a sustained set piece in which Jack and Annie have to prevent a city bus from dropping beneath 50 mph. Just as the opening act aimed to suspend us in a continuous freefall, so this second act creates a kind of horizontal freefall, opening up a new vertiginous quality to horizontal space. Since buses are the connective tissue of the city, this takes us through a cross-section of Los Angeles, until we arrive at the highway – the space that finally propels the bus up above 50, but also the space that most thwarts Jack and Annie’s efforts to keep it above 50 from then on. LA noir was often fixated with the imaginary point where the sidewalk ends, but De Bont is more interested here with where the highway ends, accelerating and hyperbolising the action until we can glimpse that mythical space via a new freeway that Jack and Annie take.

Yet this new freeway simply reiterates the paradox of the freeway as a whole. Up to a point, it allows Jack and Annie to stay above 50, since there are no other cars around. However, it also provides them with their biggest challenge yet, since it has an unfinished section, forcing the bus to jump thirty metres through the air to keep moving. During this sequence, which captures both the dream and the reality of LA freeway mobility, De Bont comes close to Christopher Nolan’s post-911 style. Like Nolan, De Bont is aware that terrorist spectacle has started to exceed cinematic spectacle, due in part to the emergence of digital and new media. It’s not simply enough, as it was in the 70s, for films to depict disaster – they have to embody it as thoroughly as if they were terrorist attacks, or terrorist documents, in and of themselves.

In that sense, Speed becomes a kind of study in terrorist affect, which it defines in the same way as Nolan – in terms of the sublime moment when people are forced to confront their fate (and others are forced to confroint it vicariously) in a compressed real-time. This compression is so unbearable and unimaginable for the actual people involved that the only way onlookers can deal with it is by reliving it over and over, both through imagination and representation. 

This looping, reflexive quality of terrorist affect converges with aeroplane disaster during the last part of the second act, when Jack and Annie decide to take the bus onto the tarmac at LAX. Not only does this give the bus room to loop round and round, but it means that the bus can’t be followed by helicopters, due to the restricted airspace above the airport, with the result that Payne can’t follow their progress through aerial news coverage. The bus starts to resemble a plane, or act like a vicarious plane, taxiing round and round the runway, in quite sublime counterpoint to the actual planes, until Jack and Annie finally manage to get everyone to safety. The bus continues on its way and, at the very moment that it drops below 50, collides into a plane, so that the climactic spectacle here is of a catastrophic plane explosion.

In other words, this sequence inchoately anticipates the visual lexicon of 9/11, shifting us from the vertical space of the opening act, to a propulsive horizontal trajectory, and from there to a dramatic plane explosion. All the pieces of 9/11 are here in a fragmented way, mediated through the space the bus traverses on the way to the airport. This space becomes increasingly virtual – from the continuously moving camera, which makes everything seem hyperreal, to the primitive satellite mapping that Payne fashions from a live television feed.   

To some extent, this virtual space cuts across the physical action, turning Speed into a very late riff on what Deleuze described as the time-image – a cinematic situation in which action, especially male action, had become subsumed into looking, in the wake of World War II, producing films where male characters struggled to extricate action from debilitated sight. That’s certainly Payne’s motivation here, or at least the closest we get to a motivation, since we learn that he is a former police officer who went rogue after losing the use of one hand in an explosion. He compensates, and enacts his revenge on the police profession that robbed him of movement, with terrorist spectacles that emphasise movement in a hyperbolised way.

Of course, this only reiterates Payne’s debilitation – and that contrast between restless movement and the threat of stasis drives Hopper’s glitchy, nervy performance. In the first scene in his control hub, we follow him as he cheers on a football game that is playing out on two adjacent screens, which together intensify the already plosive momentum of this particular match. At the very moment at which Payne yells at the screen, however, the player drops the ball, much as Hopper’s most volatile moments always hover on the verge of total involution, meaning he has to continually amp up and recharge his terrorist tableaux. In a neat Deleuzian conceit, he puts an old-fashioned wristwatch at the heart of the bus bomb, as if daring time, and the temporality of looking, to rival his own restless quest for movement.

At the same time, Payne’s plan involves substituting himself with Jack – putting Jack (and the other victims) in his own debilitated position so he can enjoy the illusion of movement by comparison. In order to forestall this, Jack teams up with Annie for one of the most iconic action tableaux of the 90s – Annie at the wheel of the bus, while Jack moves around behind her. In effect, Annie takes on the burden of sight, leaving Jack free to move around within the bus, and then negotiate the slipstream around and beneath the bus. While Jack’s movements are contained, they take an enormous strain on his body and mind, eventually collapsing into the football game that Payne is watching, when Jack deploys an Arizona Wildcats jacket, and his own knowledge of college football, to deduce how Payne is managing to surveil the bus.

Yet Payne’s plan works to some extent, since it removes any real sense of net movement. The bus is always doing one of two things – moving at a steadily escalating (or steadily precarious) pace, or looping round and round once it reaches the airport. With no net movement, movement starts to dissolve, much as the looping motions at the airport collapse into the tape loop that Jack uses to trick Payne into thinking the bus is still occupied as everyone gets up. This takes us into the third act of the film, which starts when Payne, thinking everyone is still on the bus, demands a money drop at Pershing Square in Downtown LA. Shortly after, Payne realises that his surveillance tape is looping – too late to blow up the bus (it has already blown up) but soon enough to hatch one final attempt to take movement back for himself.

It’s telling that there is no clear terrorist agenda in this third scene – just Payne’s desire to assert himself as more mobile than Jack. At this point, the film descends into a space that always feels somewhat virtual in Los Angeles – the subway system, which plays a much less prominent role in LA than in most other American cities with an underground rail network. So absent is the Los Angeles subway in most Hollywood films that it always feels somewhat notional or absent when we do see it, so it’s a good backdrop for Payne’s final stand, which also relies more heavily on CGI than any other sequence in Speed. Abducting Annie, Payne flees onto the red line, and Jack follows, producing a standoff as the train hurtles towards an unfinished track, much as the bus had to deal with the missing link in an unfinished freeway.

While Jack eventually disposes of Payne, he’s thwarted by the fact that Payne handcuffed Annie to the passenger rail, meaning the two of them have to give up all hope of autonomous movement, and instead take their chances when the train eventually goes off the tracks. It’s at this point, however, that the film departs physical space altogether, and enters the realm of the virtual, as the train leaves the tracks at an unfinished Hollywood station only to careen above ground to Hollywood Boulevard, where it comes to a neat halt right outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, right in front of a bevy of news reporters who are in prime position to take advantage of the story. This spectacle is the last shot of the film, and as De Bont pulls back to a wide angle it’s hard not to feel Payne has won, since he’s forced Jack (and us) to recognise that the extreme movements exhibited by the film can only operate as Hollywood virtuality.

This fusion of reality and cinema brings the film full circle, opening up a terrorist affect, or a terrorist field, that glimpses a new set of figurative possibilities around what an attack might feel and look like on American shores. We start with the verticality of the original World Trade Center attacks, then spin out to a more vertiginous horizontal trajectory that ends with a plane catastrophe, only to discover that what we watched was virtual, more mediated through images than we initially realised. Inchoately, distantly, Speed glimpses that the next terrorist attack has to be understood through a postmodern economy of spectacle and, in doing so, becomes a part of that spectacle economy itself. One week after the film was released, the OJ Simpson case drew on its imagery, while it would go on to be quoted in one of the most mediated documents of the 1990s as well – the JonBenet Ramsey ransom note.

More distantly, the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks would draw heavily on the American action lexicon, meaning that cinema could never fall back upon mere action to represent them, and so prompting a crisis in representation that congealed around the superhero revival that has become so naturalised today. And it’s hard not to believe that Speed wasn’t a part of that terrorist iconography, since it released a new kind of terrorist affect into the American consciousness, in a pre-emptive gesture of containment that, in the years to come, would actually make the United States even more vulnerable, explaining why this still feels like such a profoundly open and volatile action film some twenty-five years later.

About Billy Stevenson (666 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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