Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Pop Culture Vault: Vol. 2 Pt 1 SPEED

Ok, so keep in mind that when I say that I stayed in and watched Speed on a Saturday night that I have strep throat and a sinus infection. Speed, which was released in theatres in 1994, was a huge box office success and is generally held responsible for catapulting Keaunu Reeves into action star status. It was also Sandra Bullock's first big film role.

Now I had never seen Speed in its entirety until tonight. Previously I had only caught five minutes here and there in the dorm rooms of college friends or while channel surfing on ill fated Sunday afternoons.

I was immediately amused within the first three minutes as I saw Jeff Daniels and Keanu Reeves get out of the same car and gear up SWAT style. That's right, Jeff Daniels and Keanu Reeves were partners together on the force 11 years ago. Amazing how that doesn't seem like a remotely viable casting match up now, but I guess at the time Daniels was considered action film material. Now don't get me wrong, I love Daniels as much as the next guy. Arachanaphobia, Dumb & Dumber - good stuff. I think its the pairing of Daniels and Reeves that threw me off.

Then we have Dennis Hopper at a spry 58 years old, giving what I must say is a fairly embarassing performance as a leering and cackling, money hungry terrorist. According to the FX show DVD on TV, Hopper's character was actually supposed to die after the attack on the elevator, and Jeff Daniels character was to become the insane terrorist who riggs the bus. Go figure. Another interesting tidbit I picked up from DVD on TV is that the role which eventually went to Sandra Bullock was originally written for Ellen Degeneres. Keanu and Ellen? Can you imagine?

Speed is a prime example of what film industry types like to refer to as a "high-concept" film. A "high-concept" film in entertainment lingo, is basically a film which is driven by a singular major plot point. "High concept" films are usually cooked up by executives or producers who get some broad strokes of an idea and then hire a writer to expand it into a full screenplay. I can almost hear a producer say "Let's make a movie about a bus that has to maintain a speed of fifty miles an hour or it'll explode" to his associate at a sushi power lunch. I actually happen to find the term "high-concept" a bit of a misnomer. For the most part, there is nothing "high" or high minded about the concepts it describes. "Low concept" seems more apropos. Of course like many terms in the film industry, there isn't always a lot of consistency. As of late industry types use "high concept" to describe a movie that has some sort of gimmick. Like a movie about a vampire slayer who is himself part vampire, or a flick about a secret map that's on the back of the declaration of independence.

At the end of the drawn out bus sequence, the bus, now fully evacuated, runs off course and into a huge courier jet. A lot of orange fireballs and smoke ensue. There's no reason why it crashes into this plane, yet it is cool looking none the less. Of course the audience isn't let off the hook yet. It ain't over till its over, and there is the grand finale action setpiece which takes place on a subway train. (One which I find subversively hilarious because it gives the impression that LA has a working subway system) I think my favorite exchange of dialogue occured in this scene when Dennis Hopper keeps yelling "I'm smarter than you! I'm smarter than you!" only to have his head lopped off. Keanu then replies coyly by saying "Oh yeah? Well I'm taller!" (I couldn't tell if this only became true once Hopper's head was gone)

I guess Speed reminded me of a lot of those action films from the mid 90's. Face/Off, The Rock, Air Force One, Die Hard: With a Vengence. Back then it was just about a good guy and a bad guy duking it out with big guns and big explosions. Simplicity was the name of the game. Now a days, action films masquerade as other genres, attempting to have storylines with some mythology, and borrowing protagonists from video games or comic books. Tomb Raider I and II, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, The Punisher, and Van Helsing. All of these films try to incorporate more backstory and gimmicky plot points but to no avail. In fact, in the case of a film like Van Helsing, I could barely follow along with the convoluted twists and turns that the plot took; none of it made any sense. These films lacked alot of the sheer entertainment value that many of the films from the action hey day of the mid 90's had. Maybe we could use some of that Speed brand of simplicity in our action films again. Just a straightforward story with some good clean fun: explosions and handsome lookin' leads.


Anonymous DC Dionysian said...

My understanding was always that "high concept" was a sort of compliment. Every film had a concept, and if it was especially challenging or interesting it would be referred to as high concept. The term has become much cheaper lately. People will talk about something's "high concept" rather than it's concept. I notice this in comic book reviews all the time. It irritates the shit out of me. It sounds retarded to refer to everything as hight concept.

Also, Blade wasn't invented by the studio, it was a marvel comic book in the 70's, and a pretty good one.

8:32 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I am aware that Blade was a comic book, hence my comment about films borrowing their protagonists from video games and comic books. But you're right about the high-concept thing, it gets bandied about with much too much frequency these days.

9:51 PM  

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