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I’ve been watching 90s action movies with my mom for the last few weeks. I’m not sure how it started, but it’s three weeks in a row now, so I am calling it a pattern. I’ll drive up to visit, and suddenly a movie I’ve seen at least ten times but unwatched in 15 years is playing, and we have the surround sound turned UP.
I broke into the business writing action films in the mid-90s so these films have special meaning for me.
So far, we have watched THE ROCK, SPEED, and CLIFFHANGER. All are still good, but CLIFFHANGER has not aged as well as the other two. It’s fine. But THE ROCK and SPEED hold up.
One thing I had forgotten about SPEED was how awkward that third act is! It’s clumsy as hell. The dramatic question is, “Will Jack (Keanu Reeves) save everyone on the bus?”
Great! That’s a solid Hollywood blockbuster DQ.
But they answer it at the end of the second act! The question we have built this entire movie around is answered, and we’re stuck watching for another 20 minutes!
Of course, I understand the problem.
The third act of SPEED is an artifact of its concept. Sure, we need to bring Payne (Dennis Hopper) to justice, and yes, we want Jack to be the one to do it, but that’s a severe pickle because Jack is with the bus, and Payne isn’t
I do not doubt at some point, it was pitched that Keanu’s character drives the bus to where Payne is, and it’s Payne’s own bomb on the bus that kills him. Something stupid like that is normally how you would do it.
Because if you answer the DQ at the end of the second act, you must immediately change or reframe the dramatic question to something else for the third. It’s an advanced move, and not encouraged. Audiences struggle with it. You’ve asked them to care about something for the whole movie, and now you’re asking them to care about something else.
Yet, SPEED is satisfying. SPEED totally works. And I think I know why:
It’s because we care enough about the relationship between Jack and Annie, played bySandy Bullock, to make it work (We in the business call her “Sandy” to imply some familiarity we do not have.)
Once the bus is saved at the end of act two, simply reframing the DQ as “Will Jack capture Payne?” is a genuine challenge. The film, of course, NEEDS this to happen. But the audience? Sure, we’ll complain if it doesn’t, but our real concern was the bus, and that question is settled. For the audience, the movie is kind of over.
So instead, what do the filmmakers do? They reframe the DQ not as, “Will Jacl capture Payne?” but as, “Will Jack save Annie?
By now, we are 100% invested in this relationship. “Will Keanu save Sandra Bullock?” is something we genuinely care about.
Yes, it takes some weird maneuvers to get this to happen, and yes, the first time you see Annie in a bomb vest, it’s kind of annoying. We’ve seen the bad guy take a loved one hostage 100 times before, and this feels like 101. Yet, a few moments later, you don’t care.
When you watch the third act, you see it focuses on Jack and Annie’s relationship. Hopper chews some great scenery, but the energy concerns this couple falling in love and caring about each other. At the climax, when Payne is dead, Annie is handcuffed to the pole of the runaway train, and she tells Jack to go and save himself. He chooses not to. He stays with her (the sacrifice!) They survive, and she is so relieved and moved that he didn’t leave her!
The third act is really about them. And we care about THEM. Because of that, you forget how clumsy it all is.
This is also why I don’t think CLIFFHANGER holds up as well. In the beginning, Stallone leaves all his friends after a terrible accident. He returns and saves the day, but it’s all about HIS redemption. There isn’t a relationship in the movie we really care about. As a result, the whole thing feels distant.
Still a good film. Just not the action classic the other two are.
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