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Did more people hate "Speed 2" than saw it?

Speed2_260pix.jpgJan de Bont's "Speed 2: Cruise Control" is one of the most maligned movies of all time, earning the wrath of critics and audiences alike. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of two percent and an average IMDB grade of 3.5--levels usually reserved for such monstrosities as The Village People's "Can't Stop the Music" (8/ 3.7) and the insult to all things good and decent that is Adam Sandler's "That's my Boy" (21/ 5.5). Judging from its box office performance, more people hated "Speed 2" than actually saw it. Yet I have to admit that after watching it on its opening weekend in 1997, I left the theater more than happy and was not surprised by the thumbs-ups it received from Siskel & Ebert. Then all hell broke loose. When I dis a movie a friend likes, all he has to do is bring up "Speed 2."

"Speed 2" deals with a new madman named Geiger (Willem Defoe) creating havoc aboard yet another vehicle containing Annie (Sandra Bullock). This time she's taking a Caribbean cruise with her current boyfriend Alex (Jason Patric). Talked about by Annie as someone completely different from her previous suitor Jack (Keanu Reeves), he happens to share the same job, the same girl, the same look and the same heroic, self-sacrificing disposition. Geiger hacks his way into the ship's computer system he designed for the cruise line, planning to steal some diamonds and leave the vessel on course to crash with an oil tanker that's floating in front of the vacation paradise. It will be up to Alex and to Annie to thwart his evil plans.

The first thing to make clear about "Speed 2" is that it is not as good as its predecessor, one of the finest action flicks ever made, about a bus in a crowded city that cannot be stopped without exploding. Another film that comes close to matching that scenario is "Executive Decision" (1996). That one had a 747 to cover the "speed" part of the equation, but the Atlantic Ocean is not known for its crowded skies.

"Speed 2" includes many obvious devices to copy the original. Annie is oblivious to the fact that her current boyfriend works at the same place, in the same job and with the same coworkers as her former flame (Keanu Reeves). When this revelation comes, the guy just happens to be carrying two tickets for the Caribbean cruise he plans to invite her to. Alex and Annie have no problem affording a luxury suite, even with their modestly salaried jobs.

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Logic leaps overboard. The vacationers at their paradisaical destination can't spot a ship 10 stories high until it is only a couple of feet away (providing the movie's best line: "get out of the way, this is not a dream!"). Why would a sailboat explode when being crushed by the ship? Why would a sailboat carry a chainsaw in the first place? That's the kind of movie that "Speed 2" is, I suspect Jan de Bont would prefer that I stop defending his movie. Let's just add that some of these elements might sound preposterous but they are very much in the same neighborhood of the flying bus in the first film.

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There's only one sequence I truly dislike in "Speed 2." That's the terrible opening montage that contrasts the marvelous elevator hijacking in the previous entry. Here we get a standard and mediocre chase where the hero drives his luxurious Ducati motorcycle after a truck with some stolen computers. The big stunt consists of Alex evading PCs being dropped on the highway in boxes that are obviously empty. Coincidentally, Alex runs into Annie--while she is in the process of failing her driver's test yet again. Audiences might recall that in the previous movie she mentioned having lost her license over a speeding infraction, but here it seems like she's never been behind the wheel in her lifetime. Had she preformed like this with the bus from the prior entry, it would have been blown to bits after a couple of minutes. I realize we're not talking about a movie that takes itself very seriously but de Bont badly stretches things here in exchange for a couple of cheap laughs.

What's best about "Speed 2" are the sensational ending payoffs, like the scene where the cruise liner hits the enormous tanker. The CGI used here does a great job of conveying the massive volume of both vessels. Much like "Jaws" before, it greatly helps that the film is set mostly at sea. The sight of the ship crushing the pier and landing on the island is also fantastic. This sequence includes its share of requisite scenes, such as a couple making love behind a falling façade, and a perilous ending involving a cute little dog and the pristine luxury car of an obnoxious owner. There can't be much mystery about their respective fates but one of these days I hope someone writes their outcomes the other way around, just for originality's sake. These sequences bring to mind the Costa Concordia shots we've seen all over the news lately and they are just about as stunning.

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Just before his doom arrives, Defoe's Geiger is shown laughing maniacally at the heroes and he certainly has good reason. How many other movies feature an evil doer who's able to accomplish so many of his goals? It may not have been Geiger's original plan to blow up an oil tanker but even if the script ignores it, an event like this would surely cause an environmental disaster in tune with the Exxon Valdez. The diamonds that Geiger set himself to steal, sound irrelevant in comparison. Curiously enough, Alex finds the climax an excellent moment to propose to Annie, even though she's been a pain in the butt throughout) having just saved her life by exhaling in to her lungs, in an underwater kiss.

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Sandra Bullock has tried to distance herself from her participation in "Speed 2." I think she's the film's weakest link. The Annie from the original entry was a wonderful character--she was vulnerable, touching, funny and she was able to save the day without trying to be Keanu's equal in terms of strength. Unfortunately, Bullock has fallen into a pattern of always playing the typical girl who's been hurt before and doesn't trust love anymore ("Two Weeks Notice," the dreadful "The Proposal"). Here she ends up becoming a simple woman in distress.

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Jason Patric does a reasonably good job of playing a role nearly identical to Keanu's; he could have played the same part and few viewers would have paid much notice. He doesn't share much chemistry with Bullock but I don't think this is relevant; who goes to "Speed 2" for the character development? When we enter the theater for a "Speed" flick, we can be fairly certain who is going to live and who is going to die. It would have helped if the movie had provided some decent comic relief and an Annie closer to the one in the original entry, but I don't see it as big deal. Concerning the countless goofs, they only end up adding to the film's flavor. "Speed 2" is like one of the Disaster Movies of old: a grand spectacle where the star of the picture is the event itself.

"Speed 2: Cruise Control" was wounded by a peculiar phenomenon. It had the bad fortune to come out at the early stages of the internet, which only served to spread the vitriol. It was highly publicized, had an absurdly large budget, had considerable expectations that derived from the terrific first film, and a subject matter that lent itself to endless "sinking" remarks. Would Jar Jar Binks have become such a despised figure if he hadn't made his debut in the first Star Wars film in 16 years? Would the recent "Hobbit" movie be bashed as often if it wasn't following one of the most successful trilogies of all time? (A recent tweet: "Peter Jackson, you are now officially George Lucas"), Was Denise Richards that terrible in "The World is not Enough?"

Fact is, we should all be so lucky if all bad movies were as good as those mentioned above. "Speed 2" went to places and delivered things we hardly expect from action movies, it's just too bad the filmmakers didn't go the extra mile in adding better characters to the fortune they had already invested. Had they done this, we would have surely had a "Speed 3" by now and "Speed 2" would be more than just a guiltily pleasure for a very few of us.

Click HERE for a page containing the original favorable Roger Ebert and Siskel & Ebert reviews, and the winner of 1999 contest Ebert sponsored for a short film named "Speed 3."

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