Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The sequel to blatant Die Hard knockoff Olympus Has Fallen hits theaters Friday, so let’s look back on some other Die Hard knockoffs, all of them much better than Olympus Has Fallen.
The Die Hard-on-a-vehicle formula practically became its own genre in the five years between Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard With A Vengeance, which may be why 1994’s Speed now plays less like a Die Hard offshoot than the apex of a broader sort of ’90s action movie. Actually, using the imperfect but sometimes helpful metric of inflation-adjusted box office, the original Speed was actually a bigger hit than any single actual Die Hard movie.
One reason Speed doesn’t initially feel like Die Hard is that hero cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) doesn’t bear much resemblance to the regular-guy cop John McClane of that 1988 film, or even to the increasingly superpowered John McClane of later installments. In an extended opening sequence where Traven attempts to defuse a bomb wired to an elevator car, Jack proves himself cocky, efficient, and mostly unsmiling (he also enters the movie in a car soaring pointlessly above the sidewalk, a canny bit of foreshadowing of either a later plot turn or Michael Bay’s entire action-movie career). Jack’s partner Harry (Jeff Daniels, playing a character with the same name as the one in his other indelible 1994 movie, Dumb And Dumber) seems to be the closest thing Jack has to a meaningful relationship, a far cry from the very human (original) McClane.
But Speed does something clever with the Die Hard formula, intentionally or not: It essentially splits the John McClane figure into two. The heroic cop side goes to Jack, while the regular guy who rises to the occasion goes to Annie (Sandra Bullock). Annie is a passenger on the mad bomber’s next target, and Speed’s central location: a public Los Angeles bus, wired to explore if it dips under 50 miles per hour. She also takes the wheel after the regular driver is shot—the first of many obstacles the movie expertly throws in front of this vehicle designed for perpetual action. The mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) taunts Jack on the phone, as ’90s action-movie villains must, but the movie wisely makes him smart, not necessarily omnipotent. The roads of Los Angeles will provide plenty of their own life-threatening pitfalls: backed-up traffic, hairpin exit ramps, a gap in the highway. The car-crash flinches are frequent and effective.
Jan De Bont made his directorial debut on Speed after serving as a cinematographer for a number of popular films, including—wait for it—the original Die Hard. None of his subsequent films, including a misguided sequel to Speed, come close to matching this one. It may be a finely tooled machine of a movie (the Jack/Annie relationship is semi-charming and very bare-bones), but it’s rare to see a Die Hard riff, or ’90s action movie in general, this well-oiled.
Availability: Speed is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Netflix or your local video store/library. It’s also available for rental or purchase from the major digital outlets.