There's a certain snobbishness among many critics when it comes to convention; they reject some films out of hand because they follow a certain formula. But convention, in itself, is not bad; there are after all, rather strict conventional elements to Shakespeare's sonnets (after all, the form dictates structure, rhyme scheme and meter) or Hitchcock's romantic thrillers (ordinary person gets suspected of murder and is thrown into extraordinary circumstances because of coincidence 39 Steps, North by Northwest).
Beyond that, of course, there is the fact that the reason conventions become conventions is that, if they're used well, they work. Clearly, for example, the reason the convention for action pics go the way they do vulnerable hero facing mega-villain, alone (or nearly alone), out-manned, out-gunned, brought close to defeat, etc. etc. is that it's what draws us in, playing on both our drive to find out what happens in a story and our attraction to the underdog.
I bring this up, because Speed 2: Cruise Control is clearly a paint-by-numbers movie terrorist takes hostage several hundred innocent bystanders only to be challenged by hero who's on the scene by chance; terrorist a super genius who's more heavily armed than the hero; hero has to rely on his wits and willingness to save the hostages at any cost to himself, the same sort of thing we saw in the Die Hard trilogy, in Passenger 57, in Under Seige, in the original Speed, and dozens of other summer releases in the last two decades.
Yet, for all its familiarity, Speed 2 is an effective piece of movie-making in fact, it's a rare film, since it's a sequel that's actually better than the original.
In this installment, the hero from the first pic Keanu Reeves' wound-tight-as-a-spring Jack is not around (Reeves wasn't interested in starring in a sequel), but his love interest, Annie (Sandra Bullock), is; this time she's matched with another reckless cop, Alex (Jason Patric). The two take a Caribbean cruise to try to salvage their relationship which had soured after Annie learns Alex misled her about what he does with the police force. She thinks he's a bicycle cop on Venice Beach, busting jaywalkers, but he's really a member of the same crack SWAT team that her ex-boyfriend belonged to, and Annie's isn't sure she wants a relationship with someone who does crazy things that could make him end up dead.
On the cruise, however, is a madman/computer genius named Geiger (Willem Dafoe) who wants to blow up the ship because, after spending twenty years designing the cruise line's computer systems, he was fired when he contracted a terminal illness.
While the story gives us nothing new vacationing-cop-meets-terrorist is straight out of Die Hard (among others), the sequence in which Geiger takes control of the ship's elaborate computer systems echoes Die Hard 2, and of course the entire premise of a speeding ship careening through the Caribbean is just Speed on a Boat Speed 2 is actually a first-rate thriller. Sure, we know it's derivative, and we know every nautical mile of the way that we're being taken for a cinematic ride, but it's so well done that we don't mind.
The film works for several reasons. One, it remembers that a vulnerable hero is more interesting than one who's not a rule the first film ignored. While we never really cared about Reeves' character in the original we're drawn to Patric's character because he's clearly human; he's seasick, for one, but he's also a little bumbling and uncertain in his relationship with Annie. Early on, we see he's bought her an engagement and see him in his cabin, clearly rehearsing how he'll ask her to marry him, but when the moment arrives, he's suddenly shy about it, asking her in such a vague way that she thinks he's joking and makes a joke in return, and he's clearly embarrassed by his own idea. Later, the film also exploits nicely a relationship Alex has with a deaf girl aboard the ship. These are small moments, but effective because what draws us to figures in film is their weakness more than their strength.
Second the film is well-paced. After a slow beginning (the one flaw in the film is that its exposition is not handled adroitly, and the film squanders the first five minutes, cutting between a comic driving test that Annie takes with a nervous official played by Tim Conway and a chase in which Alex pursues a van loaded with stolen computers, a not-very-efficient sequence that does little but reveal that Alex is a cop who will risk everything in the pursuit of justice), the film picks up, well, speed, particularly once Geiger takes over the ship, and he and Alex become caught up in a taut little chess match in which Geiger springs traps and Alex foils them, each trap becoming progressively dangerous. Like a good action picture, Speed 2 is a bit like the rollercoaster that we've come to use as an analogy for the genre at first the rate of rise and fall is gradual, but as we get closer to the end of the ride, the dips and turns come more quickly, before we've had the chance to get ready for them.
One of the most remarkable things about the film is that it shows a surprising restraint in its use of violence (for one thing, its body count is very low two, in fact, if you like to keep score), as De Bont and his screenwriters (Randall McCormick and Jeff Nathanson) remember Hitchcock's dictum that it's not blood but suspense that drives an audience. Sure, there are explosions and, sure, as the conventions of the drama dictate, they build toward the final spectacular one, but De Bont understands that it's not blowing up one thing after another that keeps us breathless it's making us wait for them to blow up.
Don't misunderstand: Speed 2 is not destined to be a classic, but after the large numbers of badly paced, poorly scripted action films Hollywood has been lobbing at us over the last few years, it's wonderful to finally see one whose filmmakers comprehend the rules of the form.
by Joe Schuster
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