That Sinking Feeling

Speed 2: Cruise Control
Directed by Jan De Bont. Written by Randall McCormick and Jeff Nathanson. Starring Sandra Bullock, Jason Patric, Willem Dafoe, Temuera Morrison, and Brian McCardie. Opens Friday, June 13, at the Metro in San Francisco, the UA in Berkeley, and the UA in Emery Bay.

First, the good news: Unlike most action film sequels, Speed 2: Cruise Control is not a mere retread of the original. Now the bad news: Better it had been. Director Jan De Bont made a dazzling debut with the 1994 Speed. His riveting direction of action triumphed over a hackneyed, illogical script littered with paper-thin characters. In his second film, last year's Twister, the characters were even more formulaic, the non-action scenes even dumber and, sadly, more prevalent. This negative career arc continues apace in Speed 2.

The trouble is apparent from the first sequence. The opening scenes of Speed, with Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels trying to rescue people from a booby-trapped elevator, were extraordinarily tense. Here, we get a comic setup about Sandra Bullock, reprising her role as Annie, taking her driving test from a nervous-Nellie DMV employee (Tim Conway). Presumably the joke is that she's handling the car in the same daredevil manner she handled the bus last time around. I say "presumably" because, despite Conway's presence, the scene isn't funny for a moment. And it establishes Annie's character in a new and irritating light: Whereas before she seemed bravely unflappable, now she is simply stupidly unflappable.

In an unbelievable coincidence, Annie's driving test just happens to intersect with a high-speed chase -- also utterly uninteresting -- involving her new boyfriend, Alex (Jason Patric), an LAPD cowboy. (Reeves' absence is explained by quoting one of the original film's more memorable lines: "Relationships based on extreme circumstances never work out.")

This whole 10-minute intro is so tired and lackluster it might as well be cobbled together from Dukes of Hazzard outtakes; apparently, nobody was interested in coming up with ingenious or novel action ideas. And things don't get better.

While Speed had about four minutes of downtime before the action resumed, Speed 2 goes another 26 minutes before evil genius Geiger (Willem Dafoe) gets off the pot and starts fucking things up. It may well be that De Bont took to heart all the criticism about his cardboard characters and decided to take some time to establish them emotionally.

Well, now we know why he didn't do that in his other features: He's no damned good at it. Speed 2 has Alex and Annie going on and on about whether or not they're ready to commit, and we still don't care about them. After all the conversation, Alex is still a Brave, Devoted Cop, and Annie is a Plucky, Resourceful Amateur. Like Dennis Hopper's Payne, Dafoe's Geiger is an Embittered Ex-Employee Getting Back at a System That Never Properly Respected His Accomplishments.

In this case, Geiger is the computer programmer who designed the systems controlling the Seabourn Legend, an ocean liner on which he, Alex, Annie, and (conveniently) the Diamond Jewelers Association of America are traveling. He plans to take over the ship and get those diamonds, in return for having been fired after contracting a fatal disease from his computer work. "Computers create electromagnetic fields, and too much exposure to them gives you copper poisoning," he asserts -- a diagnostic claim that sounds like the ranting of a lunatic, but one the film seems to take quite seriously.

Of course, the ship is run by a bunch of morons, including a navigator whose Scottish accent is too comically reminiscent of James "Scotty" Doohan. Luckily, Alex is able to immediately peg Geiger as the bad guy, because he's not interested in watching golf on TV, even though he has golf clubs. You just wish I were making this up.

Alex's deduction makes just as much sense as the reaction of a steward who stumbles into Geiger's room and sees his laptop computer! "Oh, my god," he says, "what's the -- ?" before Geiger bashes him with -- you guessed it -- a nine iron. Oh, my god! A passenger with a laptop computer! Better call the authorities.

In fact, the mechanics of who knows what and how they know it and what they can and can't do about it are hopelessly jumbled here. Graham Yost's script for the 1994 film dealt with most of those issues, but De Bont and his screenwriters no longer seem to care. We've simply seen these mad computer programmers before, and we've seen ocean liners taken over before, and we've seen these things with more logic and suspense -- though never with such big explosions, if that's what beats your flagella. Not to mention Die Hard (on which De Bont was cinematographer), you would do far better renting either Red Wolf, Hong Kong director Yuen Woo-Ping's 1995 Die Hard-goes-to-sea knockoff, or, more to the point, Richard Lester's 1974 Juggernaut, which is still the model for how this sort of film ought to be done -- and without nearly the special effects or pyrotechnics.

The music during the climactic chase scene is a sign of the film's desperation: As action foofaraw we don't much care about transpires, composer Mark Mancina pulls out the old trick of pounding his suspense theme as hard as he can, then making it more intense by modulating the key up a half-step, a minute after which he modulates up another half-step ... and then another ... and then another until you begin to wonder when the instruments are going to run up against their physical limitations. Elmer Bernstein parodied this sort of cheap trick with the love theme to Airplane, which went higher and higher until the chorus' voices cracked. But in Speed 2 Mancina and De Bont are doing it without a bit of humor: They're just shamelessly pulling out the stops in the futile hope of convincing us we ought to be on the edge of our seats.

 
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