CINEMA: Brain Dead but Not Stupid

If making mindlessly enjoyable summer movies is so easy, why can't they all be as satisfying and well executed as Speed?

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Making movies, as people in Hollywood are fond of saying on those rare occasions when false modesty strikes them, is not exactly brain surgery. This is especially true if you're aiming for a summer release, when the ruling assumption is that the entire population is brain dead, incapable of responding to anything but high action, low comedy or soft sentiment. The question is, if the expectations are so low, how come most summer movies fail so dismally to make even a few cerebral ganglia twitch?

When a summer film goes right, it all seems so easy. Take Speed. You've probably heard that this is the one where a terrorist wires a bus with a bomb that becomes armed when the vehicle reaches 50 m.p.h.; if the bus subsequently slows down below that speed, the bomb will detonate. Talk about simple. But the film's sheer cut-to-the-chase straightfowardness is part of its appeal.

Speed has terrified (and nicely particularized) passengers, a resourceful hero (Keanu Reeves), a gutsy heroine (the always appealing Sandra Bullock) and & a terrific villain (Dennis Hopper, doing what he does best -- rationalism gone gaga). The can't-slow-down bus ride is bookended with a pair of thrill sequences, either one of which would provide enough of a plot for most movies. Speed begins with a crowded elevator that is sometimes in free fall and is rigged to explode at a certain floor, and it ends with a driverless subway running out of control, the heroine helpless inside.

The movie has two virtues essential to good pop thrillers. First, it plugs uncomplicatedly into lurking anxieties -- in this case the ones we brush aside when we daily surrender ourselves to mass transit in a world where the loonies are everywhere. Second, it is executed with panache and utter conviction. Possibly this is because Speed is the first feature for director Jan De Bont and writer Graham Yost, and they haven't yet learned all the bad things that can happen to good (and not so good) moviemakers in Hollywood. They can get all the instruction they need about such failings at the mall over the next couple of weeks. For example:


City Slickers had a nice little concept going for it: urban tenderfeet learn to feel at home on the range and become better men for the experience. The problem for II is that having achieved that state of grace, there's no compelling reason for Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal, who co-wrote the script with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) and Phil Berquist (Daniel Stern) to head West again. Especially since Jack Palance's Curly, their comically tough mentor, was killed off three years ago. The film resorts to a faux ghost routine and a twin-brother conceit to get Palance up and snarling again. Instead of the Bruno Kirby sidekick, we have a whiney Jon Lovitz playing a ne'er-do-well brother, so at least somebody can be seen to be growing up, getting better out there in the Big Country.


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