(Worth seeing)

Directed by Jan De Bont

Written by Graham Yost

With Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels, Sandra Bullock, and Joe Morton.

In Speed, the blockbuster hit about a Los Angeles commuter bus wired by a madman to explode if it slows below 50 miles per hour, screenwriter Graham Yost and director Jan De Bont have turned a brain-dead premise into a roller-coaster ride of a movie, with inventive twists, assured pacing, and dazzling visuals. But as effective as Speed is as a summer action thriller, it does the film a disservice to consider it only in those terms.

Speed begins with a hostage situation aboard an elevator, makes its centerpiece the hostage situation aboard the bus, which travels from a Los Angeles freeway to an airport runway, and concludes with a hostage situation aboard a subway train. Taken individually, these sequences might not amount to more than imaginative action-film fare. Yet together they form an unmistakable pattern with some interesting cultural implications–the repeated motif of mass-transit passengers held captive and in fear for their lives calls attention to the helplessness and anxiety we as a culture feel when it comes to mass transit.

Speed amplifies our discomfort to action-film proportions, exaggerating some of the most common aggravations for mass-transit riders–drivers who don’t stop for passengers racing after them, buses that cut off cars and narrowly miss pedestrians, construction and repairs that cause delays and inconvenience. Here these routine nuisances become life threatening, the stress they normally induce replaced by sheer terror. The film also makes a life-or-death issue out of one of contemporary urban life’s daily challenges–the attempt to avoid getting stuck in rush-hour traffic–wittily exploiting the urban commuter’s teeth-gnashing frustration and sense of powerlessness in the face of traffic jams.

These feelings are embodied in Annie (Sandra Bullock), the put-upon passenger who winds up driving the bus. Desperately trying to keep it above 50 miles per hour, she drives on the shoulder, smashes through cars, and generally wreaks havoc–all without having to fear the consequences. She lives out a fantasy of every motorist who’s ever been stuck in traffic–having absolute freedom, even a responsibility, not to slow down and being allowed to act with impunity against anything that might delay her. Much of Speed’s exhilaration comes from the release this situation presents. Frankly, when you’re stuck in the northbound lanes of the Kennedy at rush hour, it might seem worth the risk of being blown to bits to have such license.

Part of our culture’s discontent with mass transit, Speed suggests, is that the individual motorist’s wish for complete, unencumbered personal freedom conflicts with the need to relinquish control that comes with being a passenger. However maddening it may be to be stuck in traffic, you have the sense (or illusion) that you’re empowered as long as you’re behind the steering wheel. At the beginning of the film a passenger in an office-tower elevator chides a coworker for pressing an already lighted elevator button. Focusing on this futile, universal act, the film illustrates how badly we need to feel in control of the machinery that moves us from place to place. Surrendering that authority leaves us helpless, at the mercy of the stranger operating the vehicle. In Speed these individuals are repeatedly incapacitated (the drivers of the bus and the subway train don’t remain in charge of their vehicles for long), leaving the passengers in danger.

Our reluctance to give control to others is an extension of the country’s characteristic individualism, our emphasis on our freedom to do as we please. In Speed it’s possible to see the system of highways surrounding Los Angeles–a system designed to allow thousands of individuals to set and follow their own independent courses–as a metaphor for that belief. The arrival of a commuter bus in this system–indeed, the very existence of mass transit in a city that reveres the individual motorist–represents a clash between individualism and a more communal philosophy: in an aerial shot of the freeway the bus is in conspicuous contrast with the cars around it. But those motorists quickly lose their freedom of the road as the LAPD clears the highway for the bus, which still manages to ruin a great many vehicles, sideswiping, ramming, and otherwise plowing through them.

On one level these frequent, ostentatiously destructive collisions provide the infantile pleasure that’s an obligatory part of an action film. But on a deeper level the image of a bus repeatedly damaging cars (significantly, no pedestrians are injured and no other kind of property is damaged) works as an emblem of lowly mass transportation asserting its supremacy over the auto. In an early highway sequence, for example, the bus amputates the door of a luxury convertible, one of our culture’s loftiest symbols of personal affluence, freedom, and style, then forces it off the road. Through these symbolic actions the film also seems to uphold the needs of the community over the freedoms of the individual (the distress of the luxury car’s driver nicely illustrates our culture’s general discomfort at this notion).

All of which suggests that our uneasiness with mass transportation stems less from the unreliability of transit systems (though the film repeatedly presents that danger as well) than from our suspicion of the loss of personal control and freedom that communal enterprises entail. Television news coverage figures in the plot in several ways, and as the bus circles the airport runway a reporter speculates on what the passengers are experiencing: “a sense of community, perhaps?” The statement sticks out like a sore thumb, in part because the scene’s focus is on the madman (Dennis Hopper), who’s watching the broadcast from his command post in downtown LA, in part because the passengers are simply too terrified to bond. Yet it seems to be included to call attention to the idea of community and to the possibility that the bus passengers–an elderly black couple, a Hispanic construction worker, an Asian woman, a white male in his early 20s, a petty hood, a nebbishy tourist–might constitute one. This ethnic and generational cross section represents LA’s cultural diversity and, by extension, the country’s. The idea that such a group might be, or could become, a community calls attention to the fact that in this country it generally isn’t. It also reminds us that racial and, if I can suggest that buses are seen as a lower-class form of transportation, class animosities are concealed as well as fueled by our individualism.

Whenever we ride mass transit we’re forced into close quarters with strangers we perceive as being unlike ourselves. Speed suggests that for many of us the idea that our fate might be linked with theirs, and that if it is we might need to forsake some individual freedoms, is a far more frightening prospect than any physical danger such rides entail.