“Pop quiz, hotshot …”
If you were alive past 1994, then you’ve likely heard that phrase multiple times across various genres and forms of entertainment. As much a question of mettle of the recipient as it is a boast of confidence on the part of the asker, this simple line of dialogue grew to be part of the regular lexicon. Amusingly, it’s more often remembered as originating from Dennis Hopper’s scene-chewing bomber, Howard Payne, than it is from Jeff Daniels’s Harry Temple, who first utters “pop quiz” to his braggart partner, Keanu Reeves’s Jack Traven. The more well-remembered delivery from Hopper speaks to one of the less recollected aspects of the Jan De Bont-directed, Graham Yost-written action thrill-ride Speed (1994), that it’s as much a cat-and-mouse game of the mind as it as an opportunity for one crazy stunt after the other. Now coming available in 4K UHD for the first time from 20th Century Studios, audiences can take in this summer blockbuster anytime they wish with improved picture and sound. The only question you’ll have to answer is do you start with the film or the previously released bonus features. (A: The film.)
LAPD SWAT bomb disposal officers Jack Traven (Reeves) and Harry Temple (Daniels) are part of a larger team that’s called in to deal with a group of hostages being held for ransom inside an elevator by an unknown man. Seeing an opportunity to save the hostages, the two officers take action and end up coming face to face with the man in the aftermath. During the altercation, the man appears to be blown up by his own explosives and the two officers are heralded for their bravery. What they don’t realize is the celebration of their victory only angers the man further, prompting him to not only place another bomb on another mode of transportation, but to tag Jack in directly to deal with it. After laying out a few rules of engagement — a ransom of $3.7 million dollars by 11am, no one is allowed off of the bus, the bomb cannot be touched, and the vehicle cannot go below 50mph once the bomb is armed — the man tells Jack exactly where to find the bomb (underneath bus 2525) and sets Jack loose on an unsuspecting city.
**Spoiler-warning for discussion of the film in detail past this point. The film may be 27 years old, but that doesn’t mean it’s not new to you. If you just want to know about the visual and audio upgrades, jump three paragraphs down.**
A minor confession: I haven’t seen Speed since my adolescent days, so it’s been about 22 years or more since I last went on this particularly bumpy L.A. bus ride. In this regard, I remembered key aspects (the bomb on the bus, the oft-quoted line, Sandra Bullock driving, how Howard meets his end), but the areas around it were fuzzy due to time and distance. So when I tell you that the film is just as pulse-pounding a ride as it likely was to audiences back in June of 1994, I mean it. I found myself growing profoundly uncomfortable as the elevator hostages scrambled to escape as the make-shift brace slowly gave way (a legit fear of a way to go) and strangely exhilarated as the bus broke the laws of physics to clear a level 50-foot jump. It certainly helps that the script’s written by the same individual behind the equally awesome Broken Arrow (1996) and the heartbreaking The Last Castle (2001) and the creator behind FX’s Justified (2010-2015). If anyone can write a story that sparks the imagination without sacrificing either emotion or intelligence, it’s Yost. Though De Bont only directed five films, he made a statement with this, his directorial debut, and sophomore effort, Twister (1996), which continues to have its own special fanbase, as well. With Speed, De Bont presents himself as a director willing to allow character interactions to breathe, to allow for moments of levity to penetrate the tension (just like in real life), and that while stunts are great, focusing on the characters really makes a film memorable. Some of this may be attributed to Yost’s script as these are aspects of what makes Yost’s stories so great, but it takes a capable director to bring it all together. By the way, as an enormous fan of the 1995 Will Smith-Martin Lawrence buddy cop action-comedy Bad Boys, it’s particularly interesting watching Speed and hearing similar notes in the score that clearly served as a jumping off point from one film to the other.
With all of these great things, there are a few aspects which don’t age quite as well. First, so much of Speed is about Jack’s ability to think quickly under pressure, reading situations and determining Howard’s moves before making them. This is why he and Harry work to save the hostages before time runs out and how he’s able to deduce that Howard’s got a camera on the bus. Then how come there’s no discussion of body parts being found at the explosion after the first showdown with Howard? Is it meant to present Jack and the rest of the LAPD SWAT division as the arrogant SOBs that Howard is accusing them of being? Is it pride before the fall? Or is it just something the script needs them to ignore? It’s strange that the film would spend so much time setting up Howard as this brilliant tactician with knowledge of how the police work and yet the police don’t seem to do any investigating. Similarly, the fact that none of the SWAT members who explore Howard’s home seem to consider that the man might have left traps all over the place and just open all the windows and doors like they’ve been invited in (which should be a warning all by itself). It makes sense for the script to showcase Reeve’s Jack as better than the rest, he is the hero after all, but this seems like a lazy way to drum up drama after seeing just how capable and keen the officers handle the situations of the film. Not to mention that the scene where Jack carjacks Glenn Plummer’s (South Central) unnamed Jaguar owner just doesn’t play as well now as it may have then. It’s not that Jack is racist or abusive, it’s the optics of a young White-passing cop stealing the car of an affluent Black man via his authority as a police officer. We are dealing with a bit of a Trolley Problem situation as not taking the car (after trying and failing to stop others on the freeway so he can catch up to the bus) will easily result in the deaths of everyone on the bus and possibly others around them, but that doesn’t absolve the fact that it’s a Black man’s car being stolen and, sadly, destroyed in the process. The sequence is a prime example of tension-and-release with the humor of Plummer and Reeve’s back-and-forth decreasing the immediate strain of the situation and the set-up/punchline of “are you insured?” “yeah” only to have Jack break the driver’s side door off by colliding it with the front of the bus, yet it’s also cringe-worthy because of the violence done by police officers in the name of protect-and-serve all the time. The one saving grace is the moment shortly after Jack arrives on the bus and Daniel Villareal’s Ray freaks out at the announcement that he’s a police officer and pulls a gun. Jack slowly puts away his gun and tries to deescalate the situation, recognizing that the safety of everyone on board is worth more than one person who may or may not be wanted by the cops.
Even with the few things that don’t make sense or don’t age well, the whole of the film remains as enthralling as ever. In fact, it’s not until a repeat watch that you notice just how smartly cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (Romeo Must Die) frames scenes so that they hide as much as they show. I, for one, love that the audience sees Howard watching several screens, but never gives away that he can see inside the bus until Jack figures it out. The audience is only given two audio cues, Howard calling Bullock’s Annie “wildcat” twice, separated by several action sequences, so it makes sense for us to have as much shock at the realization as Jack. Other directors would give up the information quickly or work hard to hide it (and thereby give away that something’s being hidden), yet not once in all of Hopper’s coverage is there a sense of information being kept from us. Of course, having Hopper as the eye of that particular storm helps because with his energy and charisma, why would you look anywhere but where he is? Aspects of direction and scripting are just a few of the things that make Speed memorable and are the tip of the iceberg for why the film continues to garner fans all these years later.
So what about the new 4K UHD release?
The press release for Speed in 4K doesn’t offer any information on who executed the remaster, what the source was, or the process undertaken to create the new version. What it does explain is that the film comes with all the previously released bonus features, includes several audio options including 5.1 DTS-HDMA as well as Dolby Atmos in 5.1 & 2.0, a variety of language options, and that you can opt for a regular 4K UHD edition or pick-up a Best Buy-only steelbook edition. If you pick-up your physical media from boutique sellers like Criterion, Arrow, or Vinegar Syndrome, the lack of details on the transfer may frustrate. However, if you’re a general cinephile or just a fan of the film looking to upgrade, the fact that the film is being remastered for new home theaters is likely all you need. Though our home experienced ran into some trouble as the internet dipped on several occasions causing extreme frame-rate loss and pixilation, when the stream was able to present the film in proper 4K UHD, the improvements are more than apparent. While the visual style, costuming, and characterization are anchoring in the action films of the ‘90s, there’s a clarity to the scenes which wasn’t there in the Blu-ray or DVD presentations. Even if the 4K UHD transfer is made from 2K upscaling (typical of even modern releases placed on 4K UHD), no one is going to complain at the renewed vitality of the frames. I couldn’t test out the Atmos as my surround system isn’t equipped for it, but playing it on the “spectacle” setting while on Dolby 5.1 was fully immersive, offering crisp and clear dialogue that’s nicely balanced with the explosiveness of the action. The mix is treated so well that I didn’t have to adjust my volume at all.
Whether this is your first ride on L.A.’s crosstown express or you’re a frequent rider passholder, Speed is one of those films that truly doesn’t get old. Reeves is charming as hell coming off that Point Break heat (1991); Bullock easily slides into the role as the heart of the film, surprising audiences not yet convinced of her skill after Demolition Man (1993); Jeff Daniels is so lovable that your heart breaks along with Jack’s when Harry dies; and Hopper possesses such magnetism that you’re almost sad to see him lose his head amid the chaos. With all this good stuff, the decision to pick up the 4K remaster ultimately comes down to how you feel about the film and whether or not you already own it. If it’s not in your collection and you like having improved sound and picture, the 4K UHD edition might just be your next pickup. If you have 4K capability and already own it, then you need to decide if spending the extra coin is worth. So, pop quiz hotshot: what do you do?
Speed Special Features
- Audio Commentary by Jan de Bont
- Audio Commentary by Graham Yost and Mark Gordon
- Action Sequences
- Bus Jump
- Metrorail Crash
- Inside Speed
- On Location
- Visual Effects
- HBO First Look: The Making of Speed
- Extended Scenes
- Jack Shoots Payne in the Neck
- Payne Lives/Cops Party
- Annie’s Job
- After Helen’s Death
- Ray’s Crime
- Cargo Jet Explosion: The Airline Version
- Speed Music Video by Billy Idol
*bonus features vary by product and retailer
Available on 4k Blu-ray Combo Pack and digital May 4th, 2021.
Head to the official 20th Century Studios Speed website for more information.