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How 1994's 'Speed' Captured a Changing Los Angeles

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"Speed" aired on KCET on Friday, November 11, part of the classic film series, "KCET Must See Movies."

“Is this what they mean by pure cinema?” New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane wrote in his review of "Speed" when the film came out in 1994. “The phrase sometimes hovers around people like Tarkovsky and Ozu, and with good cause, but Hollywood occasionally throws a punch so clean that it breaks through to the same hallowed sanctum.” Surprising praise, perhaps, for a blockbuster represented in poster form by an explosion, a runaway bus, and Keanu Reeves, but watch "Speed" again and you see much more: while it may not have gained intellectual depth with time, it has emerged, over the past couple of decades, as the standout Los Angeles action movie, one that makes fuller use of the city's distinctive size, shape, and built environment than any other.

That bus plays a part in only one of the three shorter Los Angeles action movies that "Speed's" nearly two-and-a-half hours comprise. The first, which takes place inside and on top of downtown's Gas Company Tower, announces itself with a shot of a police car not just driving up to the building but flying up to it, catching at least three feet of air as it roars over the hill in order to deliver the protagonist, Reeves' young LAPD SWAT officer Jack Traven, and his partner, Jeff Daniels' Harry Temple. They've shown up to rescue an elevator full of office workers, trapped there by a mad bomber threatening to blow it loose and drop them all the way down that still-new high-rise's 52-story height (established by the opening credit sequence, a long upward climb through a model of its elevator shaft) unless he gets three million dollars in cash.

Traven and Temple ascend to the rooftop, finding a crane to hook onto the elevator car in order to keep it from falling -- temporarily, at least, as a well-constructed action movie demands that the solution to each crisis generate a crisis of its own. But when they get up there, we see Los Angeles' seemingly endless cityscape stretch out below them, a smoggy horizontality of background that contrasts with the glossy, angular, Skidmore-Owings-and-Merrill verticality of the immediate setting. Though remarkably little about "Speed" dates it aesthetically, especially by fad-responsive Hollywood standards, a keen-eyed Los Angeles historian could, going by the amount of smog not yet cleared up and buildings not yet built, pin down almost the exact month of production from these shots alone.

smog la
Courtesy of Metro Transportation Library and Archive

Most of this first act plays out inside the Gas Company Tower's elevator shafts, or rather a studio replica thereof. It reaches an unsurprising conclusion with not a hostage harmed, the bomber seemingly blown up himself, and the officers officially commended for their bravery (in City Hall's City Council Chambers, a location recognizable from dozens of other films) before celebratory drinks at the Derby, built in 1928, the last of the storied Brown Derby restaurants, in Los Feliz. In his commentary track, director Jan de Bont describes how an action movie as ultimately preposterous as "Speed" must, above all else, keep up its momentum to maintain the audience's suspension of disbelief, and so the story allows Traven only the briefest possible break in terms of screen time. Another crisis must erupt.

It does so another day, all the way across town, as Traven picks up his morning coffee from the Firehouse in Venice, a former real firehouse located on the corner of Rose and Main. The film establishes the location not just with a close-up of that intersection's street signs, but by including a place marker even more readily identifiable to locals: Jonathan Borofsky's belovedly hideous Ballerina Clown, a sculpture mounted on the building opposite in 1989 which combines the head of a clown (in traditional hobo makeup) and the body of a ballerina, including a mechanism to make one of its legs kick at regular intervals. Or at least it sometimes does: noise complaints shut it down by the time of "Speed's" shoot, but the Ballerina Clown more recently begun kicking again.

When a bus explodes just across the intersection, "Speed's" second Los Angeles action movie begins. As our hero rushes to the scene, a payphone (surely gone from the street today, if ever it really stood there) rings, and when he picks it up, he hears the premise: “Pop quiz, hot shot. There's a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes fifty miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below fifty, it blows up. What do you do?”

Those words come from the very same mad bomber thought dead by everyone except the audience at the end of the first act, an aggrieved former bomb squad officer named Howard Payne forced into psychotically bitter retirement by a disfigurement sustained on the job and played by no less a central a figure to Los Angeles culture than Dennis Hopper. Now, holding Traven personally responsible for the failure of his first ransom scheme, Payne demands even more money.

Whereas "Speed's" first act uses the generic verticality of downtown Los Angeles, its second uses the distinctive horizontality of greater Los Angeles, so vividly that the rest of the movie seems to have faded from popular memory. Homer Simpson once spoke of having seen “a movie about a bus that had to speed around the city, keeping its speed over fifty, and if its speed dropped, it would explode! I think it was called 'The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down'.” No matter its title, the film, which for its central section drew inspiration from earlier pictures set on runaway trains in Alaska and Japan, couldn't have taken place in any other city, nor could it have used any other city to stand in for Los Angeles, a metropolis defined over the second half of the twentieth century by nothing so much as its region-spanning urban freeways.

Just as "Speed" couldn't have been made anywhere but in Los Angeles, it couldn't have been made at any time but 1993, the city's final year of large-scale freeway construction.

Los Angeles' first freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway (better known as the northern end of the 110), opened in 1940, but the others mostly went up during America's postwar automobile infrastructure-building binge: the 5 and 10 in 1947, the 405 in 1964, and so on. Just as "Speed" couldn't have been made anywhere but in Los Angeles, it couldn't have been made at any time but 1993, the city's final year of large-scale freeway construction. It so happened that, in exchange for footing the bill for certain pieces of its infrastructure, the production could spend six weeks shooting on the 105, also known as the Century Freeway or the Glenn Anderson Freeway, planned in the 1950s but as yet unopened to the public.

speed 1994
"Speed," 1994

"Speed" certainly gets good mileage, as it were, out of the 105, first casting it as the 10 -- that great wall dividing Los Angeles' north from its south -- on which the second bus Payne has rigged to explode makes its run from Santa Monica to downtown. This line in real life uses Venice Boulevard, but if Angelenos found the idea of consistently maintaining a speed above fifty miles per hour in freeway traffic implausible, they'd surely have laughed aloud at the notion of doing so on Venice. The bus, piloted by co-star Sandra Bullock's passenger Annie Porter after a stray bullet takes its driver out of commission, later exits the freeway, whereupon the film gets looser geographically as well as physically: de Bont has admitted that, in many shots, the bus was in reality going as slow as ten miles per hour, though clever editing kept up the illusion of continuous barreling.

Besides, if Americans in the 1990s could buy the concept of an action movie on a bus in the first place, they'd buy everything that came after. "Speed's" script struggled to get made in part due to the centrality of a bus to its story -- objections to setting even more of the movie on it resulted in the shorter Los Angeles action movies that bookend it. The bus itself is quaint-looking, unlike any used in the Los Angeles Metro's actual fleet of the 1990s. Annie, riding only due to a suspended driver's license (for, yes, speeding) sits first next to a self-described “yokel” unable to deal with Los Angeles' size, and then next to a middle-aged lady afflicted by some kind of anxiety disorder. “I just couldn't handle the freeways any more; I got so tense,” she says. “Yeah, well, I love my car,” Annie wearily replies. “I miss my car.”

"Speed," 1994

These conversations happen before the danger sets in, as the bus rolls east on the 10, whose true identity the film takes no great pains to conceal: aerial shots reveal the telltale stations in its median soon to be serviced by the Green Line, the “train from nowhere to nowhere,” infamously designed to service the already vanished Cold War aerospace industry and its employees. We see them again later through the windows of the bus when the police direct it onto the 105 -- playing the 105 -- following in their trucks and helicopters as it makes its way toward the wide-open concrete plains of LAX, theoretically adequate to get the passengers off and the bomb disposed of.

speed bus jump
"Speed," 1994

Payne watches all the while from his downtown lair using a rack full of television monitors, one of them displaying a tapped feed of the bus' security camera and the rest tuned to coverage broadcast live from various news helicopters. Viewers today might take this as a visual reference to the chase down the 405 on which which O.J. Simpson led the LAPD in his iconic white Bronco, but that wouldn't happen until June 17, 1994, exactly one week after "Speed's" release. But even then, aerial surveillance by police and news helicopters had long since become an established fact of Los Angeles life, dictated by the sheer distances involved in navigating the city and made more difficult with every tall structure erected since. (LAPD helicopter pilots refer to downtown's high-rise cluster, the site of "Speed's" first act, simply as “the buildings.”)

"Speed" stands as an impressive work of practical special effects (including a jump from a car onto the bus famously performed by Reeves himself) early in the era of widespread computer-generated imagery, though it does resort to high technology to throw the bus into yet another crisis: a gap in the freeway up ahead. “There's a section missing,” reports one of the trailing officers to his superior. “But it's on the map,” barks the latter into his walkie-talkie. “It's finished on the goddamn map!” And then comes the reply that gets a laugh from anyone familiar with Los Angeles' seemingly perpetual incompleteness: “I guess they fell behind.”

That urban incompleteness manifests as another crisis when the film returns downtown for its third and final act, or third and final Los Angeles action movie, this one set in the city's depths. Payne's office overlooks the drop point set up for the money, a hole in the sidewalk under a trash can beside Pershing Square. That city park, now so unloved that it recently held a contest to decide its next thoroughgoing redesign, had only just completed its last elaborate and brightly colored but ill-fated conversion into hardscape, but its most damaging design flaw lies underneath: the underground parking garage into which Payne descends as Traven gives chase.

dennis hopper
"Speed," 1994

They end up in the tunnels of Los Angeles' Red Line subway, giving many viewers their first glimpse of the fact that Los Angeles had a subway at all. Even many Angeleno viewers must have assumed the production built it all itself or shot in another, more traditionally city-like city, but no: other than heightening the existing neon decoration with still more neon, it uses the Pershing Square station just as it was when it opened earlier the year of the shoot. When Payne tries to make his escape on a train, he boards a real one, looking much the same as real Red Line trains today except for the map mounted on its wall, whose meager pathway terminates at the message “HOLLYWOOD STATION UNDER CONSTRUCTION” -- a bad sign, considering that the train has attained the velocity and uncontrollability of the bus in the last act. If you've never witnessed the final, majestically ridiculous special-effects shot of "Speed," I won't spoil it here, other than to say that it will resonate with anyone who remembers the disruption caused by the Red Line's construction under Hollywood Boulevard back then.

"Speed" inadvertently captures the moment of transition between a suburban city and an urban one.

More than twenty years later, Los Angeles may sprawl just as far and feel just as incomplete, but its built environment, now less occluded by the air than ever, has come a long way indeed. More towers have risen, none of them yet victimized by a mad bomber. Freeway construction consists of only minor (albeit hugely expensive and not particularly effective) expansion projects while transit continues to expand. Parks have become inviting places again, and even Pershing Square may follow suit. A wider swath of Angelenos would not only watch a movie about a bus, but actually ride one.

Aspiring only to thrill, "Speed" inadvertently captures the moment of transition between a suburban city and an urban one. Pure cinema? Perhaps. Pure action cinema? Probably. Pure Los Angeles cinema? Definitely.

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