The Action Scene: "Speed"

Starting with Jan De Bont's 1994 blockbuster, a new column delves into the thrilling form of action set pieces across cinema history.
Jonah Jeng
The Action Scene is a column exploring the construction of action set pieces, but it also considers “scene” in the sense of field or area: “action” as a genre and mode that spans different cultures and historical periods. By examining these two levels in tandem—one oriented toward aesthetic expression, the other toward broader contexts and concepts—this series aims to deepen appreciation for and spark discussion about action cinema.
It’s easy to forget that Speed (1994)—a film so famously invested in relentless forward motion—begins vertically. Before Keanu Reeves’ Jack Traven boards an L.A. bus rigged with explosives, set to blow if the speedometer drops below 50 mph, we get a hostage rescue from within an elevator shaft, and, right before that, an opening credits sequence that distills the rescue scene to its essentials: dizzying heights and the fear of falling. At first glance, this sequence seems simple, perhaps even bland. As the camera tracks down an elevator shaft, the credits materialize in blue, blocky letters to the rhythm of Mark Mancina’s grandiose score. After the A-listers are named, the film’s title barrels in from the left. The sequence then continues as before: a steady downward descent through a space that, though retroactively recognizable as the setting for the following scene, here feels hypnotically abstract. It’s less a specific location than a way to—via the sight of metal beams and luminescent lights gliding by every few seconds—visualize the motif of pure, downward velocity. Movement in gravity’s thrall.
This opening may seem like an odd way to open a column on action scenes, primarily because it’s not what one would typically consider an action scene. There are no spectacular displays of physical exertion; no sense of danger to human or otherwise visibly sentient characters; no narrative frame that sets up the central conflict or the stakes involved. These elements crowd the rest of Speed, but not here. And yet, I believe this scene works beautifully as an inaugural object of study on account of how elegantly it lays out the thematic and kinaesthetic principles of a film that is, in many ways, a thesis on what action movies are and do.
“You still don’t get it, do you Jack?” speechifies Hopper towards the end of Speed. “The beauty of it. A bomb is made to explode. That’s its meaning, its purpose.” Arriving around the climax of the film, this little monologue fittingly caps a movie that, for the last hour, has been about bare-bones mechanics: how to keep the bus driving, and fast? Put another way, Speed takes the foundational principles of much spectacle-driven cinema and incorporates them into the narrative, the movie’s own agenda of presenting what film scholar Richard Dyer calls a “sheer squandering of sensational situations” being mirrored in the plot point of a vehicle that’s unable to slow down. The film goes fast and it’s about going fast, a meta action movie that practices what it preaches, except “preach” isn’t quite the right word. The thrill of action exceeds any narrative attempt to ennoble or moralize, to draw clear distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong. When literal rubber meets literal road, the action—the rushing asphalt, the careening bus, the steep plunge that invites certain death—becomes a vertiginous fact that acts directly on viewers’ bodies, whitening knuckles and setting pulses racing.
It is action as physical fact, stripped down to its basis in pure physics, that the opening credits sequence captures so well. Action films like Speed heighten our awareness of space, orientation, and movement by turning them lethal, introducing dangerous scenarios in which “up," “down,” "fast," and "slow" become matters of life, death, and grievous injury. The forward force of the bus exceeds the weaker force of a smaller, obstructing vehicle’s structural integrity, leading to crumpled metal and spraying glass; this same force, when directed across a yawning chasm, works crossways to gravity to heave passengers to safety. It’s crucial that the credits sequence is vertical because so much of the rest of the film is horizontal; had the sequence simply doubled down on the motif of forward motion, then forwardness would have been thematized rather than the entire field of human sensorimotor experience.
There’s another possible reason for the verticality, and it has to do with not just elevators but skyscrapers, apartments, and the entire urban setting in which Speed takes place. Action cinema has always been tightly wedded to technological modernization, to the way new modes of transportation and the vertical growth of cities transformed our relationship to space and time. In his book The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century, historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch notes that the evolution of the railroad effected a corresponding evolution in human perception, in the thresholds of mechanized speed that it became possible to experience. The greater the velocity, however, the greater also the danger of catastrophic accident. No wonder trains factored so prominently in proto-action films like The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The General (1926). These chugging iron behemoths marked the new upper limit for speed and risk, thus making them prime arenas for tales of action. Similarly, as modern metropolises expanded skyward, films like Safety Last! (1923), King Kong (1933), Die Hard (1988), and sundry Jackie Chan titles drew on the increased risk of death-by-plummeting for their visceral impact.
Set within a landscape of cross-hatched highways and extending from high-rise to city bus, Speed participates in action cinema’s historical entwinement with urban and technological development, and it is the opening credits sequence that lays out these concerns most clearly: new heights, new speed, the blunt reality of “up” and “down” gaining fresh significance. And yet, consider how slowly and stably the camera descends. Absent is the frenetic tumble of free fall, the acceleration of a mass succumbing to gravity. This carefully regulated pace is of course partly functional—how else is the viewer to read the credits text?—but it also reminds me of what the villain yells at our hero near the start of the film: “There are rules, Jack!”  
Indeed there are, chief among which is the fact that Speed is a movie. Although the film gleefully embraces the perils of modernization, never do we feel like we’re in danger ourselves. This may seem like an obvious point, but the tacit space of safety that the film constructs for viewers in relation to onscreen events is what lets us be swept up in all the high-octane craziness. It’s what allows us to vicariously experience situations too dangerous to brave in real life and still return (relatively) unscathed; to test the limits of our bodies from the safety of our seats. Whether intentionally or not, the way the credits sequence modulates the experience of falling underlines a central appeal of action cinema: the ability to experience controlled chaos, to be brought to the edge without crossing over. It’s also why we enjoy rollercoasters: the fight-or-flight terror at being flung 100 mph through the air is kept in check by the weight of the restraints, the feeling of wheels on track, and the memory of past rides successfully completed. With primal fear gone, all that’s left is the rush.

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