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93% rotten tomatoes
Li’l baby Keanu was 30 years old when this movie was made. LOOK AT HIS LI’L BABY FACE AND HIS LI’L BABY BUZZCUT!
Ack, okay down to business.
1994 and thereabouts is a special time in movie history. This is kind of the last time we get movies without a major CGI component. All of the effects here are just standard trickery and deceit.
CGI was definitely a thing by 1994, but it wasn’t extensively used like it is now. In fact, Jurassic Park was the first physically textured CGI, and that was in 1993. What is physically textured CGI you ask? I’ll tell you. It’s Level Three computer magic. 2D computer animation is Level One (beginning in 1972), 3D computer graphics is Level Two (beginning in 1976). That is the extent of my knowledge. Okay, okay. I can’t find a really good description of the processes, but from what I can understand of what I did read, computer graphics prior to Jurassic Park were just kind of layered over whatever was shot on film. The difference in the physical texturing is the use of green scenes to implant the computer images into the final product.
Some additional landmarks – Toy Story was the first full-length CGI film (1995). Starship Troopers had the first big ol’ CGI battle scenes (1997). Fight Club first used something called photogrammetry, which is using photographs to measure things (1999). Perception/timing alteration – The Matrix (1999). First use of motion capture GOLLUM from LOTR: The Two Towers (2002).
The point is – all the action in the old action movies has a different kind of feel to it, prior to all the CGI. I’m not saying CGI is bad – it’s great, but it’s different, that’s all. Two things can be different but still equally lovable.
A note on the script – the characters in this movie are all unexpectedly well-developed. Well guess who wrote the dialogue for the movie? JOSS WHEDON. You know he has a great talent for inter-character relationships. Buffy. Firefly. All have casts with crackling chemistry and very believable human interaction.
Okay, so let’s do a short plot recap. Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels are super cops. Not like Robocop, but since they’re the focus of the movie, we’re led to believe they’re better than other cops. Even the other SWAT cops. And we’re right, obviously. The movie starts out with them foiling a disgruntled ex-bomb squad guy’s plan to extort money by trapping hostages in an elevator.
Side note – being trapped with a random selection of people inside an elevator in peril is an excellent way to see someone’s true colors. It’s a good first date idea. Keep that in mind.
Okay, so ex-bomb guy is like, oh yeah? How about I DIDN’T actually blow myself up like you thought – I escaped, because I’m an evil genius. And by the way – if that wasn’t elaborate enough for you WATCH THIS. I’m going to blow up a random bus when it’s right in front of you, just to get your attention so I can tell you that I’ve rigged a random city bus with a BOMB. But not just any bomb, oohhhhh no. This is an extra special, needlessly intricate, super dramatic bomb. It’s just going to chill under this bus. BUT – once the bus gets up to 50 mph, then it’s ARMED. And once it’s ARMED, the bomb will go off if you let that bus get BELOW 50 mph.
So our super cop Jack finds a way to get on that bus dammit, because that’s the only place he can solve the problem. Using a walkie-talkie (cell phones were neither widely available nor affordable in 1994), he can communicate with other super cops and make all the right turns to avoid LA traffic so they won’t slow down and explode. Here comes a series of obstacles: panicked guy shoots the driver. A panicked woman tries to get off the bus with the injured driver and oh ho ho – ex-bomb squad guy thought of everything because he already has a tiny bomb under the bus stairs for just such an occasion. He explodes the stairs and panic lady gets crushed under the bus because that’s the punishment for panicking.
Jack, because he’s so young and level-headed, decides he’s going to get under that bus, goddammit. So that’s what he does. And what does he find??? A FAKE BOMB. The peasants rejoice. But then finds the MUCH BIGGER REAL BOMB. The peasants despair. But what’s this??? A clue??? A shitty gold watch OMG THE BOMBER MUST BE EX-POLICE BECAUSE THIS IS EXACTLY THE SHITTY GOLD WATCHES WE GIVE TO COPS ON THEIR WAY OUT. So based on this and other context clues, I guess, they figure out this guy used to be on the Atlanta bomb squad. No word on why he’s in LA. I guess because at the time Atlanta wasn’t a big filming destination, and he couldn’t be from LA because then the cops would have known who he was.
So Jack’s beloved partner goes on a raid to dude’s house and – I have to pause here for a moment. This fella has been blowing stuff up all over the city, right? So you’re gonna just walk up in his house. Cool – so they get blown up, and now Jack is devastated that his partner has been blowed up. So of course he’s going to redouble his efforts, because REVENGE.
Buncha stuff happens, but let’s skip forward to – the end. Everyone is off the bus now except for Jack and Annie. They couldn’t get off because of reasons. So they find a pipe laying around, jam it on the pedal, hurl themselves off the bus, and watch it crash into a plane and explode. I assume the plane was empty.
Now Jack has to chase down the money they left for Atlanta guy, but Atlanta guy is so far ahead of them – he’s anticipated every move (because he’s an ex-cop and he knows how they think, ya know), so he’s gotten the money away, but he RESURFACES AND KIDNAPS ANNIE because women is bait, y’all. So he puts a suit made of bombs on her and takes her as a human shield to the subway, then handcuffs her to the subway.
He’s making his getaway on the subway when he decides it’s time to fondle that sweet dough. There’s a dye pack in there though, and it explodes in his face, and makes him super mad. He hears Jack stomping around on top of the subway car and goes up there to finish off that meddling kid. But instead he gets decapitated.
So now Jack and Annie are in a runaway subway car that’s going too fast and being conducted by NO ONE. He takes off her suit made of bombs but can’t manage the handcuffs. (?) So he derails the subway car on purpose, which results in it being jettisoned out onto the street where it turns on its side and all the windows break and Annie is THROWN on top of Jack (lucky) and also they kiss. The end.
So what is the point of all this, you ask? Good question. A good action movie has to have a good bad guy motivation, otherwise it just drowns in its own preposterousness. On the surface, Howard Payne is pissed because his thumb got blown off and he was forced to retire. But… you have know when you join a bomb squad that you might get maimed. It seems like it’s probably on the job application. I’m not sure why the amount of money he wanted was 3.7 million, but it’s possible I just missed it hidden somewhere in the dialogue. I think the reason this movie doesn’t feel ridiculous and contrived, even though it is, is not so much Payne’s motivation, but rather his dedication. This fool is very determined to get his money, and the elaborateness is him giving a big “fuck you” to the career that spurned him. As someone who appreciates vengeance, I can fully buy into this villain.
As you may know, Speed has been called “Die Hard on a bus” and I am inclined to agree. Why you ask? There’s lots of broken glass in this movie. So many explosions. Underground tunneling. Bomb complications. Hero embroiled in a situation far more intense than he’s trained for. Villain always three steps ahead, and has complex plans – in short, he’s a respectable equal to the hero, instead of a bumbling brute. Villain kidnaps the hero’s woman. Villain dies a grisly death. Speed is Die Hard on a bus.
Okay, enough gushing. Let’s get to poking holes. The scene where the bus jumps the gap in the road. We all know that’s physically impossible, yes? Let’s explore.
Here are some physics basics – gravity has no horizontal effect, so as soon as the bus leaves the road, it is falling. It’s completely up to its horizontal velocity as to where it’s going to end up.
SO – the gap is 50 feet, or 15 meters. The road from which they jump appears to be mostly flat, about a 5 degree incline. The bus launched into the air traveling 67/68 mph. In reality, the front bumper of the bus would have smacked onto the other side of the jump, and then would have plummeted to the ground, killing everyone, unless the bomb went off first, which would also have killed everyone.
Just install some hydraulics to give your bus that extra lift before charging over certain death
In order for this jump to have worked, the following changes would have to take place: The bus would have to be travelling at 78.3 mph, and would have to take off from a 30 degree incline. That’s quite a bit different than what was depicted.
But let’s talk about physics some more, shall we? What always bugged me as a kid – while the bus is mid-air, there is no friction against those spinning wheel, yes? So what would the speedometer actually read? Would it drop or spike up? Does it matter if she kept her foot on the gas? What happens when you touch back down if you have it floored in midair? Then I realized I actually have no clue how a speedometer works, so INTERNET.
Let’s find out how speedometers work, shall we? Speed is just how long it takes you to go a certain distance, which sounds like it’s measured after the fact, right? What your speedometer tells you is your instantaneous speed – how fast you’re going right now. We know the basic car mechanics, right? Fuel combusts, pistons pump, engine turns over, which engages the driveshaft, and then the wheels go.
So apparently, there’s a li’l speedometer cable attached the driveshaft (it can also show up in other places). The speedometer cable spins a magnet inside something called a speed cup, which creates eddy currents in the cup that spins it as it tries to keep up with the magnet. There’s a hair spring on the drive shaft between the magnet and the speed cup, and it tightens, which keeps the the cup from turning all the way. The pointer on your speedometer is based on how far the hair spring lets that cup turn. Which leads me to wonder how do we ever know how fast we’re actually going.
Electronic speedometers use magnets positioned to pass each other on the drive shaft and create a little current. A circuit measures the time between those pulses and converts it to a speed reading, just FYI.
Okay, so this is all good to know but it doesn’t really answer my question, so the next obvious step is consult an expert car guy. Enter James – ex-Marine, current mechanic, all-around cool dude.
He told me that in addition to this sensor system, some newer cars will have a GPS mechanism to read speed. I don’t think that applies in 1994, so we’ll stick with the mechanical system.
Whilst in the air, the speedometer would have shown higher than their actual instantaneous speed because of the reduced load on the drive train due to the absence of friction on the tires. This makes sense now. Additionally, he says the bus would have slowed down in reality, yes, because the drive train has nothing to push against. So as long as the bus didn’t slow down to under 50 during it’s descent, and was able to keep moving swiftly once it was on the other side of the road, it’s plausible that the bomb wouldn’t go off – ASSUMING – he says, that the bomb was wired to the speedometer, and not something weird that would measure the actual speed of the bus. In which case kablooey.
Apparently, people who worked on this movie thought it was going to be an epic failure, but it turned out to be rousing success, as well as other movies like it. I feel like it was a changing of the guard of sorts. We’re moving out of the 80’s action movies that were very campy, and so sweaty. Die Hard came out at the end of the 80’s, in 1988, so it acts as the vanguard for change.
Let’s review. The 80’s were full of movies starring jacked dudes just tearing shit up. Terminator, Robocop, Predator, Rambo, Commando, Mad Max, Conan, Escape from New York, Road House, Bloodsport, Lethal Weapon, etc. The big names were Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Segal, Chuck Norris. I will admit I’m being a little selective. I’m not including horror/sci-fi or adventure movies, like Alien and Indiana Jones. I’m focusing on the manly action movies.
To be fair, a lot of these guys were still kicking around in the next decade, but additionally, the 90’s were full of movies starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Jean Claude, Tom Cruise. The new class of action heroes were still buff, but not on steroids. The fighting shifted from brute strength and huge machine guns to very skilled combat. We looked for action stars to not only be physically capable, but mentally agile and cool under pressure as well. We’ve got a lot of movies where an average guy gets caught up in some crazy stuff – Point Break, The Fugitive, Independence Day, Con Air, The Fifth Element, The Matrix, Face/Off, Desperado, Cliffhanger I guess, Universal Soldier, etc. That’s not to say these things were absent in other decades, but the concentrations were shifting.
In conclusion, here are some rippling forearms:
What did YOU think of the topics we discussed? We’d love to hear from you!