You may not think that the role of a bus driver in a ’90s action thriller might be a golden ticket to movie fortune and fame but that is exactly what the role of Annie proved to be for Sandra Bullock who took a role that could’ve simply been sidekick fodder for the hero of the moment, Keanu Reeves as LAPD bomb disposal officer Jack Traven, and turned into one replete with a huge amount of humanity and an unwillingness to be turned into a cardboard cutout woman in peril.
Forced to take over the driving of bus 2525 from Venice to Downtown which has been armed by “crazy, not stupid” ex-policeman Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) with a bomb which will explode if the bus’s speed drops below 50 miles per hour, Annie is the epitome of someone who has no choice to do something heroic but who remains innately, groundedly human throughout.
Though she proves herself more than capable of driving the bus, something that she shouldn’t be doing as she tells Jack she’s lost her driver’s license because of, oh the irony, speeding, she is also understandably scared, unsure she can do what she’s been called on to do and desperately worried she is hurting people in the process.
Time and again we see Annie wear her heart very effectively on her sleeve, humanising someone who moves well beyond a mirror for Jack’s macho wherewithall to Fix the Problem – thought to be fair Jack is also a caring, decent man who does what he does because he does care, rounding him out far more than your average action hero – to a real flesh-and-blood person who embodies the hopes of fears of everyone else on the bus, including sweet, strong Ortiz (Carlos Carrasco) and socially awkward obvious LA tourist Doug (Alan Ruck), and indeed, pretty much anyone watching the film.
Annie, portrayed by Bullock with nuance and raw emotive power by Bullock, is an Everywoman who spurs you to be invested in a film which wastes no time getting going, beginning with a literally explosive scene in a downtown LA skyscraper where an intuitive Travens and his savvy, bomb knowledgeable partner Detective Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) manage to save 13 people in a bomb-strapped from a crushing death deep in the basement.
It’s intense, it’s highly emotional thanks to one older woman who is too frightened to get off the lift until Travens urges her to help save herself, and it demonstrates that Jack cares and cares deeply about people.
That comes through again the next morning when he greets his bus driver friend Bob (John Capodice) at what looks to be his neighbourhood cafe, all bonhomie and warm though not close friendship only to watch him die seconds later when Payne, whose a little pissed that Travens thwarted his get rich in retirement scheme in the lifts the previous day, decides to make it all personal.
As set-ups go, it’s masterful, involving and immersive and under the steady hand of Jan de Bont in his feature film directorial debut, it augurs well for a brilliantly-executed action flick, of which the ’90s is justifiably famous.
But while Reeves is undeniably effective in a thousand different humanising ways as Travens, proving to be the perfect mix of caring and vengefully justice-driven, a characteristic of many an action hero but one which the actor invests with a real sense of vulnerable humanity, it is Bullock as Annie who really gives Speed its emotionally resonant core.
From the moment she demands to know what’s going on from Jack, who politely but firmly asks her to wait until he can clue the bus driver Sam (Hawthorn James) with whom Annie clearly enjoys a delightfully warm friendship, about what’s going on, Bullock is far more than Girl Who Drives the Bus For the Hero.
Whether it’s freaking out after she thinks she’s taken out some woman’s baby in a pram – it’s just cans but for that homeless woman, it’s her entire world and the film documents that powerfully too – or worrying desperately when Sam is shot or crying because she feels guilty she is relieved to be alive when fellow passenger Helen (Beth Grant) dies after trying to leave the bus, Annie in Bullock’s talented hands, is the very epitome of what a reluctant co-hero looks like
She is determined, sassy, friendly, quick with a witty retort, raw, sad, lost and eminently capable, a very human mix of can-do spirit with the kinds of vulnerabilities that you’d expect of someone in her position.
She doesn’t try to be some superhero, though in many respects she is rising to a challenge not all of would or could meet, and stays very grounded and real throughout, investing Speed with the kind of grounded humanity that ensures the film is never just some vapid action flick. (Though it is of course, a million miles from that, tautly and cleverly executed from thrilling start to rom-comy finish.)
Though Speed does get a little cheesy towards the end, you’re prepared to take all the over-the-top coincidences and moments of incredulity – a bus leaping over 50 feet of missing freeway? Ridiculous, but do you cheer when they make it? Of course you do! – because Bullock, and Reeves, are real people in a wholly unreal situation who make this whole edge-of-your-seat story feel like something that’s very deeply, intensely human.
Because of that, you inwardly lose it at every death, a rare thing in an action film where a mounting body count usually feels like notches on a belt rather than the loss of living, breathing human being, and cry when Annie cries, scared that she can’t do this, that people might be hurt, that she might not survive and that for all her bravery and quip-heavy banter, she might not come out the other side.
You know she will because Speed is that kind of good-people-beat-bad-people kind of movie but also because, even in the face of her very welcome human frailties, she has what it takes to keep the bus on the road until Reeves does what he does best and saves everyone with seconds to spare.
Speed is a brilliant piece of action film-making, setting and executing on its premise with dazzling power and emotion, keeping you unreservedly in its grip from start to finish but it is also a wholly effective exploration of how ordinary people (or as real an action films get) handle an extraordinary situation, and emerge triumphant, their lives and humanity intact and endear themselves to the audience in the process who are happy to see their heroes make it through, thus proving that maybe they could survive something this off the charts intense.
That may be debatable but what it is not is that Bullock (and Reeves) are the heart and soul Speed, centering its action excellence with a healthy, moving dollop of humanity and thus elevating the movie into the pantheon of lives-in-peril films that not satiates our need for adrenaline-filled storytelling but satisfies our need to see people beating the odds despite their fears and emerging even more human and likeable than when they began.