Speed 2

Director Jan De Bont messes with a successful formula, and somewhere, Keanu is laughing.

Published July 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

what the original "Speed" had going for it was a concept both stripped down and well thought out. The filmmakers realized that the premise of a city bus filled with passengers rigged to explode if it goes less than 50 mph, although promising, wasn't enough by itself. Tossing in one complication after another, they made sure that the narrative, and not just that bus, kept plowing forward. The focus on the bus not only heightened the tension, it kept the movie from veering all over the place. Maybe the filmmakers were able to maintain the picture's modest scale because (reportedly) Twentieth Century Fox had no faith in it (specifically in first-time director Jan De Bont and in audiences' willingness to accept Keanu Reeves as an action star).

Three years and more than $100 million later, modesty has taken a hike, along with Reeves. By the immutable law that governs all blockbuster sequels, "Speed 2: Cruise Control" is bigger, noisier and far more predictable than its precursor. The setting this time is an ocean liner, and as soon as you see that the assembled passengers include a little deaf girl and a passel of overweight people, you don't have to wonder who's going to take this voyage's award for Most Terrorized. When Willem Dafoe's baddie, a disgruntled psycho computer whiz, gets bug-eyed and cackles more in this single film than most performers do in an entire career, you can envision every off-kilter actor in Hollywood being tapped for future installments. ("Speed 3: Flying Blind" featuring John Turturro as a disgruntled psycho air traffic controller; "Speed 4: Balloonatic!" with Christopher Walken as a disgruntled psycho hot-air balloonist.)

Reeves -- who must have sensed an impending disaster -- is gone, and the explanation we're given is that his character's daredevil lifestyle made Sandra Bullock's Annie meshugge. When the movie begins, she finds out her new action figure beau, Alex (Jason Patric), isn't the beat cop he told her but a SWAT team member. They embark on a Caribbean cruise hoping to work things out but, wouldn't you know it, wacko Willem has picked their luxury liner on which to play Popeye the sailor man.

Having been kicked out of his job designing high-tech systems for cruise liners after he contracted a terminal copper poisoning from prolonged exposure to computers (huh?), Geiger, Dafoe's character, uses his skills to take over the navigation of the ship. He creates a false emergency to send the ship's passengers into the lifeboats so he can swipe a stash of jewels and make his getaway before crashing the ship into an oil tanker. Of course, what would a movie nutcase be without his very own yucky eccentricity? Geiger's is applying leeches to himself in the belief that they suck the poison out of his bloodstream. That's as garish as the movie gets. The mechanics of the plot have to do with how Alex and Annie, who of course haven't abandoned ship, find ways of overriding Geiger's computer-controlled takeover. (Bullock is at her most annoying, swinging from her patented cuteness to ineffectual attempts to stop Patric whenever he has to risk his neck because "you could get hurt." Duh.)

Sometimes, the best gauge of the state of Hollywood isn't its best filmmakers, but which filmmakers pass for competent craftsmen. Jan De Bont was a superb cinematographer ("The Fourth Man," "Flatliners") who did a clean, efficient job directing "Speed." He replaced skill with bombast on last year's "Twister." "Speed 2" is such an inept piece of direction that it's anybody's guess whether De Bont understands how to convey where two characters are in spatial relation to each other or in relation to the action. "Speed 2" has been shot in standard blockbuster style, which means that every crash, every explosion sends the camera jiggling while all manner of debris falls in front of the lens, obscuring our view of whatever's going on. It's often impossible to tell were Alex and Annie are in the ship in relation to where they have to get to or away from. By the end, with the ship plowing right into a Caribbean port town, the picture is a mindless Destruct-O-Rama. In the way that Broadway musicals have become an excuse for audiences to ogle the sets, action movies are now an excuse to see the shit kicked out of someone, something or somewhere. There's no suspense (not even a dumb visceral charge) in watching a luxury liner crush cars and bust through ocean-front condos. But this is a $125 million action blockbuster -- something's gotta get whammied.

The other big asset "Speed" had going for it was Reeves, with his buffed-to-just-the-right-degree physique and his be-all-that-you-can-be brush cut. He's become such an easy target for not especially imaginative smartasses that it's embarrassing to have to point out what's obvious: The camera adores him and, like almost no other male star around, he lets himself be ravished by it. But a hell of a lot of Puritan impulses kick in when a performer's charisma is inextricably tied to his physical beauty, and the people who ridiculed the very idea that he gave a performance in "Speed" don't seem to understand that, in an action movie, how an actor looks and moves is the performance.

I hope that somewhere Keanu Reeves is laughing about being considered a nonactor while the wax dummy Jason Patric has somehow achieved a rep as intense and gifted. If this guy has any passion, it must all go into perpetually maintaining the same facial expression. He's shown the same damn vacant impassivity in "After Dark My Sweet," "Rush," "Geronimo" and now here. (Tommy, can you hear me?) Patric is apparently a lot of people's idea of an actor. But whose idea of a hero is the hot dog he's playing here? Not only does Alex get people killed when he stops a lifeboat from lowering, his actions put the people who reboard the ship in constant danger from Dafoe. To top things off, he causes a massive oil slick in the clear Caribbean waters while rescuing his girl. A hero only Exxon could love. The next time anybody feels like making a Keanu Reeves joke, they should remember that he had enough brains to bail on this stinker.


By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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