The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.
Sandra made six films in 1993 and only one in 1994. But that lone title in 1994 was finally the one that shot her to stardom. Speed, one of the biggest blockbusters of its year, is one of the most fast-paced, brilliantly constructed, endlessly exciting action movies ever made. No matter her successes in the last twenty-four years, including romantic comedy hits and an Academy Award for The Blind Side — Jan de Bont’s Speed, with its smart script and compelling characters, remains one of her two best films, second only to Gravity.
Casting director Risa Bramon Garcia, who cast Sandra in The Vanishing and in Speed (and naturally can be given a lot of the credit for Sandra’s career) told me at her home in 2010 that Sandra wasn’t the first choice for the role of Annie, and that many other actresses were considered, with Halle Berry at one point being offered the role. Garcia thought Sandra was perfect for Speed, but the studio wasn’t too keen on her. Her previous film for 20th Century Fox — Love Potion Number 9 — had been one of the biggest bombs of 1992, and they had no interest in pursuing her for their upcoming projects. Sandra’s agent at the time, not thrilled with the idea of his client doing another action movie right after Demolition Man, tried to dissuade her from auditioning. But Garcia persisted, ultimately convinced Sandra’s team to let her audition — and the rest is history.
Speed was made for just $28 million, fairly low at the time for a studio action film, and 20th Century Fox never looked at it as one of their most promising summer movies. They intended to dump Speed in August, while the sure-fire action blockbuster, James Cameron’s True Lies, would be released in July. But then something magical happened — Fox had an early preview of Speed. And the response was so through-the-roof that the studio decided to make an unthinkable last-minute decision to push the movie up two months to June 10. While post-production on the film was obviously hurried, the move to earlier in the summer marked one of the Fox’s best decisions of the ’90s, as Speed went on to become one of the biggest hits of 1994, and one of the most beloved action movies ever.
Why is Speed such a superb action movie? Most of all, it has a great concept that’s executed flawlessly. A lot of directors could have made a movie about a bus that can’t drop below fifty miles an hour (and the studio certainly met with other possibilities, including Walter Hill, as well as someone who wanted to shoot all the bus material on a soundstage!), but Jan de Bont, a former cinematographer who shot Die Hard and made his directorial debut on Speed, proved to be the best choice for this material. Despite its absurdity, with one improbable action sequence after another, the viewer buys everything that happens because of the assured confidence of the top-notch directing.
And viewers don’t just believe the crazy events through the movie; they, some way or another, actually care about the characters, too. Few action movies, even the ones made by the greatest of directors, feature charming, memorable characters — the emphasis is usually always on the stunts. And if there was any film script in history to toss aside its characters for eye-popping nonstop action, Speed would have been it. But what makes the film endure today are the terrific performances by its ensemble cast, and the unexpected but winning romantic chemistry between Sandra and Keanu Reeves.
Reeves is at his toughest and most lovable in Speed, and the late Dennis Hopper, famous for playing bad guys, delivers one of his most iconic performances of his career. Jeff Daniels thought he was making a turd while shooting Speed and was surprised more than anyone when the movie actually turned out to be good — he has some great moments in the movie, particularly his haunting last shot. On the bus are terrific character actors, too, like Alan Ruck and Beth Grant, who both add humor and humanity to the proceedings.
But it’s Sandra’s courageous and relaxed performance that brings out the best in Speed, playing everything as truth, displaying her winning personality even in the midst of chaos and confusion. Although she had a chance in 1993’s Demolition Man to showcase her charm, much of her performance in that action movie is her playing an ignorant goofball. In Speed she’s an everywoman, an L.A. native forced to ride the bus to work because of her many speeding tickets, and she elects to drive the massive vehicle in a moment of panic when the driver is accidentally shot. There’s nothing fake or phony about her performance. She draws you in with her smile and relatable personality, but it’s her honest moments of fear and gratitude that really make you fall in love with her.
And if by the third act Sandra wasn’t yet looked at as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, her final minutes in the movie mark the best acting in her early career, in which she realizes Reeves’ character is going to stay on the runaway subway train with her. The relief she feels in that following moment when she discovers they’re still alive feels so real and immediate that it’s hard to believe that we’ve watched an action movie at all. It ends, after all the absurdity that’s happened, as a love story!
Before Speed opened, Sandra was an up-and-comer, one break away from a giant movie career. After Speed, she finally had her pick of movie roles, starting with two lead performances she delivered with gusto in 1995. Although her choice of material since making the big time has been at times questionable, Speed remains one of her most glorious entertainments, a movie that will continue to action lovers for decades to come.
Best Scene: The bus jumps the fifty-foot gap!
Best Line: “I should probably tell you I’m taking the bus because I got my driver’s license revoked.” “What for?” “Speeding.”
Joss Whedon did an uncredited rewrite of the script. Much of the dialogue in the finished film came from Whedon, according to screenwriter Graham Yost.
Sandra learned to drive a bus for the film, passing her test on her first attempt.
Ellen Degeneres was at one point considered for the role of Annie.
Sandra and Jan De Bont would team up three years later for the infamous Speed 2: Cruise Control, without Keanu Reeves at their side.
Yost and producer Mark Gordon make it clear on the Speed DVD audio commentary that they both had nothing to do with Speed 2. In fact, they weren’t even invited to the sequel’s premiere.