What is it about Speed that always keeps people coming back for more? Now celebrating its third decade as one of the greatest action films ever made, Jan de Bont’s positively explosive bare bones rush hour movie is a rare case of an enduring Hollywood classic, with insanely bankable stars, that hasn’t been re-upped, remade or rebooted to death.

30 years on, it has spawned a wealth of imitators, a legion of die-hard fans (50MPH podcast we see you) and an entire legacy of super straightforward, super effective action cinema. But really only one legitimate sequel. So, what happened? How did such an influential movie falter? Why is an IP-hungry Hollywood, that’s somehow so starved it’s willing to bankroll a 9-figure stuntman movie based on an ancient and barely remembered ’80s TV show, so Speed-phobic? And most importantly of all, is the original still just as good as you remember it?


The answer to the latter is obviously a resounding fuck yes. Speed remains not only the template for the the ’90s action boom that followed – with plenty of that timeless, fan-favourite combo of gnarly practical stunts, and endearing romantic leads – but stands as the very, very best of them too. A lean, unrelenting masterclass in how to pitch every single element of the action movie just right, from casting, to plot, to pace, to payoff. Dennis Hopper’s thumbless baddie is just the right amount of evil; a Coca-Cola-glugging TV addict who’s somehow both spittingly nasty and incredibly human. Keanu Reeves’ hotshot LA cop is brash and ballsy and maybe a little too confident, but also in way over his head; an everyman who’s having a very bad day. That killer concept – a bus that can’t slow down or it’ll blow-up – is milked for just about all it’s worth, but with enough twists and change-ups to keep it forever exciting and air-bitingly tense. One could go on and on and on, but Speed is simply, by every definition, a perfect action movie.

So it’s hard to think that both it’s winning romantic pairing and killer directorial voice were, at the time of release in 1994, considered box office risks. Reeves was still but a twinkle in the eye of action heroes future, largely known for his multiple turns as goofy surfer dude Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan, and his big mature follow-up as… slightly less goofy FBI surfer dude Johnny Utah in Point Break. Sandra Bullock was hot off a scene-stealing supporting role in Stallone actioner Demolition Man, but had little else populating her CV. And legendary Dutch cinematographer Jan de Bont had just spent several decades shooting some of the most legendary action thrillers of all time, from Die Hard to Basic Instinct, to The Hunt For Red October – but had never actually directed anything himself.


For all three, Speed changed everything; an immediate critical and commercial success, it won two Oscars, made back ten times its budget at the box office alone, and remained Bullock’s highest-grossing release in a very storied career all the way up to 2013. It set Reeves on a path to become the iconic lead of several huge action franchises, and it gave de Bont’s slowly building directorial career a giant shot in the arm, leading to him helming another ’90s staple just a few years later, in Twister (which, ironically, is just about to get the reboot treatment itself).

So to reiterate, what happened? Not that Speed is a movie that particularly hinges on franchise potential – if anything, the polar opposite, its one-off hook makes for possibly the greatest single serving actioner ever made – but there are so many inferior ’90s movies that continue to thrive, even now. Die Hard is four sequels deep; Bad Boys is about to release its third; Mission: Impossible is knocking on number eight, and Fast & Furious has somehow catapulted itself into double figures. And yet the closest thing we have to a Speed 3 is either a particularly dated Family Guy joke (glaciers of doom) or one of the very best episodes of barmy Irish sitcom Father Ted.

The answer to all of this and more is, obviously, Speed 2: Cruise Control. A sequel so resoundingly terrible and misguided, that it not only slaughtered the Speed-fever of the ’90s, but burned the corpse and salted the earth so that nothing would ever sprout from its remains again.

In losing Reeves as leading man Jack Traven, the sequel not only forfeited its likeable hero but the winning chemistry with Bullock’s Annie, too. De Bont’s insistence on shifting the setting from a fast-moving crosstown bus to a slow-moving cruise ship completely killed the pace, and the studio’s lax budgeting, tossing insane paydays at everyone possible to keep them involved (even Reeves’ replacement Jason Patric – a virtual unknown – was given a 7-figure salary) resulted in a huge box office ask for the film to even just break even. So it’s no surprise that Speed 2 sank in just about every way its predecessor succeeded, winning Razzies not Oscars, and being reported as one of the biggest box office bombs of all time (despite hitting #1 its opening weekend).

By the time Speed 2 dropped in the summer of 1997, just a few weeks after Con Air, the legacy of the original was already written all over Hollywood. Reeves and Bullock’s killer duo had helped revive classic romantic pairings a la Romancing the Stone, and Bullock’s chatty, loveable, practical action heroine had finally given female leads something to do; The Mummy, Zorro and Reeves-starrers The Matrix and Chain Reaction would all follow suit.

Even Die Hard would use Speed as a base for its threequel With A Vengeance, copying its bomber-themed plot, and bringing in Samuel L. Jackson as a buddy foil for Bruce Willis’s John McClane. The zippy, self-aware dialogue (mostly re-written by Joss Whedon) would hang around all the way up to the rise of Marvel, and the relentless, kinetic energy of de Bont’s direction can still be felt in a lot of the best of contemporary Hollywood action, through the work of David Leitch, Antoine Fuqua, Justin Lin and the Russos.


At the back-end of the ’80s, the first Die Hard took back the action blockbuster from Schwarzenegger and Stallone, stripping it of its super-heroics. A few years later, Speed would take things a step further, well and truly making big, explosive action a date-night staple, with sweetly played, relatable romantic leads and grounded, light-hearted plotting staged much more around helping each other, than murdering bad guys. And while action cinema continues to flourish (though now largely outside of Hollywood), the superhero boom of the ’00s diluted the classic style that Speed perfected, and what few stragglers remain have became awash with either overly complicated narratives, weightless CGI sheen, or both. Speed was, by many measures, the last great genre-defining hurrah of Hollywood’s original action market.

Thirty years on, a threequel feels like a no-brainer – studios are thirsty for IP, Reeves and Bullock are both still big box office draws, Cruise Control has been almost completely forgotten – but maybe it’s a good thing to leave this one last pure bit of action cinema magic alone. There’s only so far a concept can stretch, and even if the world deserves another Reeves/Bullock romantic pairing (with both apparently eager and willing), are there really many other places a small, contained adventure movie about an out of control vehicle can go?

Speed’s winning concept is, after all, its true star. Original writer Graham Yost joked that it came from a half-remembered recap of the ’80s Jon Voight disaster flick Runaway Train, about a brake-less locomotive speeding out of control across the Alaskan wilderness. And ironically, such a plot would form arguably the closest thing to a true Speed threequel, in Tony Scott’s 2010 thriller Unstoppable; a genuinely tense and brilliantly composed buddy movie, one that’s again more about working together to solve an unimaginable disaster, than finding and killing any bad guys involved.

After a bus and a train, it’s difficult to move the out-of-control calling card action of Speed to anywhere else new. A car is too small. A plane lands things too close to Die Hard 2, Con Air, Air Force One or any number of hijack scenarios. A cruise ship certainly doesn’t work. And rehashing the original would be an insult to what is already a perfect film. So where does that leave us? Outer space? Maybe, for once, Hollywood itself has realised that the well here is well and truly dry.

Instead we can continue to celebrate what remains a genuine one-and-done miracle of a blockbuster that partners an absolutely killer hook, with loveable leads, emotionally-charged action and a run time under 2 hours.

Speed was screened as part of Forbidden Worlds Film Festival 2024. For more info on the festival and future events, head to forbiddenworldsfilmfestival.co.uk.