Die Hard set the gold standard for action films of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its fusion of action, suspense, and wit would inspire a myriad of followers and gave birth to the phrase “Die Hard on a ___.” Speed, described as “Die Hard on a bus” is surely one of those followers, but it is so much more than that.
Speed subverts the usual pitfalls of the standard action film by placing importance not on the set-pieces, but the suspense. Sure, the action is there (and I love watching Keanu Reeves jump from a moving car onto a bus as much as the next guy), but it’s all about the central idea behind it all: a bomb wired to blow up a bus if it goes under 50 mph. Speed plays out more like a thriller, and it’s tension is nail-bitingly palpable at times.
Speed challenges the genre expectations of other Die Hard imitators by wrong-footing the audience time and time again. A scene involving the out-of-control bus and a baby carriage is a prime example. Just when you think that Speed is falling back on action movie clichés, it pulls the rug out from underneath of you and forces you to be drawn right back into the action.
In this way, Speed feels like an action film with a bit more substance than the usual genre fare. Some of the film’s finest moments are the times when it slows down and showcases the morality struggle going on within the doomed bus and a fine cast supported by Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Daniels go some way towards elevating the film even.
Yes, there are moments of undeniable ‘90s cheese, but to those willing to look at the big picture, Speed is more than just Die Hard on a bus. It’s a classic in its own.