Review for Speed
When I first got that Blu-ray player, the HD TV, I went into the new hi-def love affair with all the right, frugal intentions. After all, an up-scaled DVD is good enough, or so I thought. I’ll really only double dip on those few movies that I love and watch the most, make do with the rest. That frugal intention has fallen by the wayside as my appreciation of high definition content has increased, while the prices of bargain Blu-ray discs have decreased to the point that they’re almost as cheap as bargain DVDs. But from day one, I knew that one DVD that would be double-dipped to Blu-ray was Speed. After all, while that DVD might have been acceptable on an SD CRT TV, on my new flat panel screen, it looked like a blurry, compressed mess. While it’s been on my to-watch pile for some time now, I finally take a look at Speed, the Blu-ray.
You’d think that saving an elevator full of terrified business folk would be a good thing for L.A. S.W.A.T. team member Jack Traven, but he’s just made an enemy of the wrong psychopathic bomber by depriving him of his hard-earned millions. Now Howard Payne has another scheme in progress, and just to make it personal, he’s going to have Jack Traven unwittingly help him to his ill-gotten gains. This is why Jack is now on a morning rush hour bus, wired to explode if it drops below 50 miles an hour, with an unlikely passenger named Annie at the steering wheel.
The Speed DVD came from pretty early on in the DVD cycle, which might explain why it didn’t play nice with hardware up-scalers. The Speed Blu-ray itself is getting on for 10 years now, but it doesn’t look half bad given even that. The 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer is pretty solid, giving strong detail, rich and vivid colours, and a stable and clean image. It does come from that period when studios were more prone to process catalogue films to make them look more HD, giving them that digital ‘pop’. There is a smidge of DNR in Speed, enough to scrub it of most of the film grain, and some of the finest of detail. There’s a bit of black crush too, really noticeable on Harry’s jacket around the half hour mark, and I did notice a momentary shimmer on a truck grille at one point. Fortunately, Speed is a bright, colourful film, set during daylight hours, so the usual post-processing affects it less than it would other, darker and moodier films.
I have no complaints about the audio though, which on this disc comes in DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English, with optional English, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian subtitles. It’s a great surround track that really places you right in the middle of the action, ensuring all speakers are put to full use. This is one seriously sound-designed movie. The dialogue, creaky as it is, is clear throughout, and the film’s music drives the pace of the story and action well.
The first DVD was a barebones release, while the second was a 2-disc special edition that was replete with extra features. This Blu-ray compromises, saving some of those extra features from the special edition.
You get two audio commentaries on this disc, one with director Jan de Bont, and the other with writer Graham Yost, and producer Mark Gordon. They are both good to listen to, although the former is more technical, while the latter is more of a candid retrospective.
The pop-up trivia track is pretty sparse on information, while the alphabetical scene search is as much of a disposable gimmick as the java game.
Finally there are trailers for Speed, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Back in the nineties, Hollywood action movies still meant Sly, Arnie, Bruce and Mel to me, as well as the occasional Seagal and van Damme. Speed was something a little different, a breakout role for Keanu Reeves, at the time still strongly associated with Bill and Ted. And much as I enjoyed the film, I could never really move past that, even after The Matrix trilogy laid Bill and Ted to bed. It always felt like the odd one out, even when I watched it on DVD. The last ten years of so called action cinema from Hollywood has changed my mind on that though.
Action cinema in the eighties and nineties style is dead. We no longer have average Joes pulling off insane stunts in the name of defeating a bad guy. Cops are no longer close to retirement, red-blooded Americans no longer have European accents, and pithy one-liners no longer accompany the brutal but well-deserved slaying of a villain (played by an English actor). The action movie hero is dead, supplanted by the comic-book superhero. And the movie world is worse-off for it.
But we had some twenty years of action movie cinema prior to Speed, and Speed distilled and refined the precepts of that genre, so in many ways it became one of the best action movies of the nineties. You have your taciturn hero, facing off against an erudite villain, you have a great concept, perfect for engendering suspense and pace, and you have great actor performances, bringing out the best in the script, delivering those cheesy lines with the appropriate verisimilitude.
Actor performances indeed, which is something rarely written about Keanu Reeves. But Speed was made pre-CGI. Practically the only use of computer generated imagery was to insert a gap in the highway for a bus jump. The rest of the film was accomplished traditionally, with miniatures and models, and insane stunts that risk-averse insurance companies would insist are done digitally these days. There’s a breathless reality to the over-the-top action in this fantasy action movie world that grabs the audience and holds their attention. The thing about the comparatively low-level stunts and realistic action is that the filmmakers can’t cheat with CGI; they have to have a decent script, good actors, and interesting characters to carry the movie, and that’s what makes Speed still so watchable today.
The Speed Blu-ray is 9 years old now, from early in the format’s lifecycle, and this was when distributors were post-processing back catalogue titles to give them HD pop, and in the process making them look less like films shot on celluloid. Speed just about gets away with it, thanks to its bright sunny setting, and lack of dark scenes. You don’t mind the grain being scrubbed as much. Of course any back catalogue title being released today would get a far more sympathetic restoration and re-mastering. I wouldn’t cross my fingers for another Speed Blu-ray release though, and this disc is more than fine to watch.