The childishly placid doe eyes, the angel-lipped smile, the dawdling surfer monotone — cherubic hunk that he is, Keanu Reeves’ salient characteristic as an actor has always been the way he walks around in a sweet-spirited fog. He’s like a guy happily stoned on his overtaxed brain cells. To his credit, this 29-year-old star, who is best known for his stuporous comic turns in the Bill & Ted films, has also done his bit to become a most excellent actor, honing his chops on prestige period pieces like Dangerous Liaisons and Much Ado About Nothing. The surprise is how well his ambition has paid off. Stretching his modest, likable talent in opposite directions, Reeves now stars in two major releases, the dazzling action thriller Speed and Bernardo Bertolucci’s sugarcoated metaphysical fairy tale, Little Buddha. Which role is the bigger stretch? It turns out to be the action hero — but only because Speed, the more brazenly commercial of the two films, is also the superior work of artistry.

What disaster movies were to the ’70s, action films are to the ’90s: lurid cinematic comic books that, in their appetite for destruction — for bigger and better thrills — tap our collective anxieties about urban apocalypse. Recently, though, my anxieties have felt a little tapped out. The action genre, with its car chases and smash-’em-up violence, its endless formula sadism, has become mired in a dead-end, we’ve-seen-it-all-before lethargy. That’s what makes Speed an exhilarating shot of adrenaline. The film takes off from formula elements — it’s yet another variation on Die Hard — but it manipulates those elements so skillfully, with such a canny mixture of delirium and restraint, that I walked out of the picture with the rare sensation that every gaudy thrill had been earned.

In Los Angeles, a psycho terrorist (Dennis Hopper) attaches a bomb to the bottom of a public bus. Once the bus reaches a speed of 50 miles an hour, it can no longer dip below 50 — or the bomb will go off. Jack Traven (Reeves), an LAPD officer working on SWAT detail, maneuvers himself on board, explaining the situation to the terrified passengers and putting one of them, the feisty Annie (Sandra Bullock), in charge of driving. Jack now has to defuse the bomb. But his main priority is making sure the bus keeps moving — zipping onto the shoulder and around the sides of freeway jams, zigzagging through urban roadways, soaring over the 20-foot gap in an unfinished bridge.

The premise has a built-in existential zing — it’s like The Wages of Fear redone at roller-coaster tempo. With the prospect of death looming at every red light, the thrills don’t need to be hyped, and first-time director Jan de Bont, a former cinematographer (Basic Instinct, Lethal Weapon 3), takes pains to mount this collision-course fantasy with as much verisimilitude as possible. Like George Miller in The Road Warrior, he lets the action unfold in real time, measuring with a kind of giddy, heart-in-the-throat exactitude every dip of the speedometer, every loony hairpin turn. It’s a pleasure to be in the hands of an action filmmaker who respects the audience. De Bont’s craftsmanship is so supple that even the triple ending feels justified, like the cataclysmic final stage of a Sega death match. De Bont understands that the best suspense is honest suspense. He wants us to know exactly what it feels like to be on that bus.

Holding the movie together is Reeves, who does more than slip inside the pumped-up skin of the Willis/Stallone nihilist superman; he makes the character his own. There are many pressure-cooker laugh lines in Speed, but the slyest joke of the movie is the way the image of Jack the fearless, go-getter hero plays off Reeves’ blank-generation stupor. His face as pale and expressionless as a mime’s, he’s the most implacable of daredevils, a guy who’ll lie face up on a tiny cart and glide underneath a racing, booby-trapped bus because, on some level, he’s too dazed to give a damn about his own safety. As Howard Payne, the mad bomber whose thumbless hand looks like a package of raw hamburger, Dennis Hopper transcends his recent movie-psycho turns (and just about everyone else’s). Watching news reports of the bus fiasco on four TVs at once, he’s not just crazy-charismatic, like John Malkovich’s gonzo creeps-he’s genuinely unhinged, a jittery genius wreck who launches these schemes to soak up his excess energy. Hopper is the perfect maniacal spark plug for a movie in which a zooming bus becomes a pop metaphor for a world speeding chaotically out of control. Even Hitchcock, I think, would have approved.

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