Hilariously growly voiced cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) are instrumental in thwarting evil-crazy bomber Howard Payne’s (Dennis Hopper) plan of blackmailing the city of Los Angeles into paying him three million dollars lest he blow up an elevator full of people. After said thwarting, Payne is presumed dead, but of course, he’s still alive, and has a new, even more idiotic, plan: he has installed a very special bomb in a bus that’ll activate when the bus’s speed falls below the limit of 50 miles per hour.
Cars will be destroyed, stuff will explode and Jack will find sweet, sweet
love (until the sequel, that is) with bus passenger turned inadvertent driver
Annie (Sandra Bullock when she still mostly looked like a human being, decades
before a frightening, unmoveable botox face won her an Academy Award). Well, and
Harry will die, of course.
Occasional director Jan de Bont’s (also known as the man we still curse
on each first full moon after Christmas for his abominable remake of The
Haunting around here) magnum opus is rather good fun as the big, stupid,
silly action movie it is. Sure, Payne’s plan is idiotic, the laws of physics
don’t apply to anything happening in it, Dennis Hopper overacts in a
disappointingly joyless manner, and Keanu Reeves is our hero, but there’s also
quite a bit to like here.
The script might take place on planet action movie, but you can’t say it
doesn’t know how to escalate things excellently, or that the resulting film
doesn’t take its title seriously, going from one increasingly absurd stunt to
the next with aplomb while actually keeping up the tension throughout. I’d even
go so far as to say that the film does have at least some clever ideas,
if not intelligent ones: locating it in Los Angeles with its bizarre assortment
of Freeways (that still look like science fictional spaces to certain European
eyes like mine) is pretty much perfect, and having Payne apparently spy on the
characters via cable news live chase coverage is even mildly subversive. The
dialogue’s often (one suspects thanks to an uncredited Joss Whedon doing a
thorough re-write) funny in a knowingly cheesy way, and in general, the film’s
rather good at providing the necessary card board characterisation in a very
efficient manner. And how many action movies have you seen where the hero cop’s
doomed partner makes it quite this far into the film?
While de Bont’s direction has all the grace and elegance of a sledgehammer,
he is very good at the car chases and explosions aspect that makes up ninety
nine percent of what’s on screen here, and even though I personally prefer my
action directors to have a bit more of an eye for the poetry of violence and
carnage, de Bont’s doing just fine here, perhaps for the only time in his
side-career as a director.