There was a heady point during the mid 1990s, when I was in my early teens, when the Speed VHS would be brought out at almost every sleepover, along with an argument over who was allowed to fancy Keanu Reeves the most for the duration of that particular screening. But on reflection, it does not seem strange that what was once a furious obsession eventually dulled to nothing: the prospect of finding escapist entertainment in the story of a bomb planted on a bus by an angry domestic terrorist has become less alluring as the years have gone on. (Keanu Reeves, by all accounts, has not.)
It has been 20 or so years since I last saw Speed, and it quickly became clear as I rewatched it that I had forgotten most of it. That says more about my teenage flightiness than it does the quality of the film, because it turns out that this is still a masterful and thrilling action movie. It ladles on the tension until it’s brimming over, and then it keeps going, until you’re losing your head. I have not felt so stressed out by a viewing experience since Uncut Gems. And the bomb-on-the-bus part is only the filling in the Speed sandwich. The bus section is bookended by the villain’s even more dastardly plot to blow up a lift full of workers, and a full-on, all-out LA subway chase which is so ridiculous and over-the-top and unnecessary that having the audacity to tack it on to the end of the main chase is almost genius. This is certainly a showy film. You sense that the very idea of understatement was offensive to director Jan de Bont. When the passengers finally get off the bus safely, and you think that part is over, the bus drives itself into a plane and blows that up too. Just because, well, why not?
I do not remember finding Speed scary or particularly gruesome as a teenager, but as an adult I can see it is clearly both, which makes me think I have grown into being a snowflake rather than out of it. Dennis Hopper plays evil ex-cop terrorist Howard Payne using every bit of his Hopper-ish anti-charm (“Don’t fuck with Daddy”), and he begins the story by shoving a screwdriver into a poor security guard’s ear. This is not the harmless sleepover fodder I expected. However, I winced to remember that Hopper’s catchphrase, “Pop quiz, hotshot”, did make its way into my own vocabulary for a while, for which I can only retrospectively apologise.
Against Hopper’s meaty acting, Reeves’s deadened delivery is all the more stark, but that, too, is charming in its own way. I had not picked up on the fact that Reeves’s LAPD hero Jack Traven is hungover when the bus fiasco kicks off. Not only does he save the bus and then a subway train, but he also falls in love with Sandra Bullock’s Annie, who jokingly tells him they should base their entire relationship on sex. Just to reiterate: he is hungover for the whole thing.
Speed is a brilliant blast of adrenaline that is as extravagantly fun now as it was then. Jeff Daniels is excellent as Jack’s doomed colleague Harry; Bullock really set the template for the kind of quippy role she would become famous for; and everyone’s favourite presidential wannabe, Succession’s Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), shows up as a naive visitor to LA who gets more than the bus ride he bargained for. Pop quiz, asshole: who knew Speed would hold up so well?
• This article was amended on 6 April 2020. An earlier version mistakenly said “Jeff Bridges is excellent as Jack’s doomed colleague Mac”. This was initially corrected to name the right actor, Jeff Daniels, and then later to correct the character Daniels played, Harry.