Amid a Sea of Die Hard Knockoffs, Keanu Reeves Made a Thriller that Stood the Test of Time

Gotta go fast.

Written by Joe Allen
20th Century Fox
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The release of Die Hard was an earth-shattering moment for Hollywood’s blockbuster industrial complex. Bruce Willis, a TV star, had fronted a major action movie with a remarkably straightforward premise and turned it into a smash hit. And, just a year after Predator, John McTiernan cemented himself as one of the best action filmmakers to ever pick up a camera. Even though few have succeeded in making Die Hard happen again (including Willis), it’s easy to understand why so many have tried.

The decade after Die Hard was rife with movies that tried to mimic its simple formula — a man gets trapped somewhere with a bunch of hostages, and has to save them. Cliffhanger, Under Siege, Sudden Death, Air Force One, and Skyscraper, among many others, all used elements of that formula to try replicating Die Hard’s tremendous success. Among all of the knock-offs, it was Speed that cracked the code. The movie, infamously described as Die Hard on a bus, proved it was possible to make Die Hard again in a way that mostly worked.

What made Die Hard so brilliant was that it took a simple setting and used it to its fullest. We get time on Nakatomi Plaza’s roof and air ducts, and we visit all sorts of different floors (including some that aren’t finished). Speed does the same thing. Set on a bus where a bomb will explode if the vehicle goes under 50 miles per hour, what follows is a tour not just of the bus, but the environs of Los Angeles as the passengers are forced to do whatever they can to keep themselves from blowing up.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most effective Die Hard clone was directed by McTiernan’s cinematographer. Jan de Bont is not a showy filmmaker, but like McTiernan, he intuitively understands how to set up and knock down the beats of an action movie in a satisfying way. Speed is a silly rip-off of Die Hard, but de Bont never lets that be an excuse to do things the easy way. The movie understands that simply copying Die Hard is not enough to become an automatic success.

Crucially, Speed diverges from Die Hard once it moves beyond the basic premise. For all of the goodwill that he’s justifiably earned over the course of his career, Keanu Reeves is not Bruce Willis. Willis is all wisecracks, making John McClane feel beset from the moment he sets foot in Los Angeles. Reeves has a much more earnest persona, and his bomb squad cop, Jack Traven, spends most of the movie focused on pure problem-solving. It’s to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t force snark onto Reeves, instead molding the character of Traven around his persona.

It may be a silly premise, but Speed puts the bus and its passengers through every conceivable scenario.

20th Century Fox

Instead, Speed offers Sandra Bullock a much larger role than Bonnie Bedelia received in Die Hard. Bullock’s Annie Porter spends much of the movie driving the bus, and she’s given the wisecracking, sharp-edged role that points toward the absurdity of the general premise. Annie’s central role in the action also speaks to how the genre had evolved, even in the six years since Die Hard, to give women just a little bit more to do.

The two movies further diverge in the specifics of their villains. Die Hard’s Hans Gruber is a businessman thief, operating with clinical precision as he hides behind a terrorist persona. Dennis Hopper’s Howard Payne feels almost like Gruber’s bizarro counterpart, a man fueled by his deep-seated convictions and a desire for revenge. If Alan Rickman’s Gruber is tightly controlled, Hopper is all wild energy, but what the two characters do share is a certain charisma. They might not be carbon copies, but each movie seems to recognize that getting the villain to pop is essential.

Tweaks like these helped Speed find success, and while its premise is undeniably indebted to Die Hard, both movies share a long action movie lineage that stretches back decades; Speed is just as indebted to the runaway train movie. But what really made Speed work, and what kept the rip-off accusations to a minimum, was the commitment of everyone involved. You’re only making a Die Hard rip-off if that’s the movie you set out to make. The cast and crew of Speed aimed higher, and wound up creating an action movie classic with a reputation all its own.

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