2 MPH / Is Speed a Masterpiece?

With Los Angeles Times Film Critic Justin Chang

Settle in for this one…

As you know, Speed kicks off with that wonderful opening credits sequence in the elevator shaft featuring a suite of composer Mark Mancina’s score. It’s sort of a musical journey reflective of the narrative journey that the audience is about to take. All the bits and pieces of what’s to come are right there in those notes at the top. It only felt right to do something similar at the start of the 50 MPH journey and kick things off with a holistic discussion of Speed and all its moving parts.

Who better to help contextualize the movie and its place in the modern context than with our preeminent film critic?

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s “Fresh Air,” as well as a regular contributor to KPCC’s “FilmWeek.” The guy knows what he’s talking about! Chang joins the podcast today to help us break the champagne across the hull and christen the voyage with a deep dive into Speed to set us on our way.

Speed is somewhat undervalued, even though I think it’s a masterpiece,” Chang says. “I think people maybe are reluctant to use that [word] about B movies or about movies that are nothing more or nothing less than thrilling entertainments, but it’s not really a word I hesitate to use with this one…And maybe that’s a product, partly, of nostalgia, but plenty of my nostalgia fetish objects don’t hold up and this one does.”

From the film’s incredible practical-effects movie magic, to the enormous chemistry and on-screen appeal of its two central stars (who would be launched into superstardom as a result), to its effortless representational qualities and so much more, Chang will get you situated and hyped for a year-long journey through the making of a movie megahit.

“It feels like the peak, like the apex of something, which is remarkable, too, considering it is Jan de Bont’s debut feature as a director,” Chang says. “It is a movie that heightens your perception and heightens your reactions. Every moment of it feels real. This movie is just the definition of firing on all cylinders.”

A few more select quotes:

“I don’t keep up with all of them, but watching action movies now, there’s just this detachment that happens. So much action filmmaking is so dehumanized. That practical element, that great emphasis on realism that Jan de Bont and other directors of that era were so intent on capturing, I think that’s so important.”

“There’s a joyous sense of spontaneity to this movie. It reminds me of a time when movies were made more by the seat of their pants. That is Speed to me. And of course, movies are still chaotic and difficult to make and you’re always responding to the moment, but I do feel that with the advent of CGI, so much of it is now worked out to within an inch of its life or test-marketed to within an inch of its life.”

“The culture has really come around to Keanu Reeves in a big way, and that is another great legacy. I love his performance in this. Everything that is wonderful about Keanu Reeves is there on screen in that performance. I mean there’s just this tremendous freshness, this sweetness, this kindness.”

“It’s a great process movie where you’re seeing people work. And this extends, kind of perversely, to Dennis Hopper’s character, too. The pride that he takes, the very kind of disturbing pleasure he takes in bomb-making and when he talks about the satisfactions of that.”

“You would want more movies like Speed, but you could not recapture lightning in the bottle in the same way. [It was] a lot of extraordinarily talented people being trusted to play in the sandbox and make something, and they did, and it just exceeded expectations. I think there’s something about that, about really talented people who were not household names yet being allowed to do something, that is crucial to why this movie endures.”

Listen to the latest episode of 50 MPH for all of that and a whole lot more!


Kris Tapley Your Host:

Kris has covered the entertainment industry for nearly two decades, with bylines at Variety, The New York Times, Empire and Vanity Fair. He now works as a writer and consultant in Los Angeles, where he lives with his loving wife, lively son and lazy cat. He likes Speed.