Welcome back to We Can Fix It, an ongoing series in which CRAVE Online looks at some of the most legendarily bad movies ever made and asks, “What if…?” What if they didn’t suck? What would it have taken to turn this box office bomb into box office boffo? What if “boffo” was a real word? These are the hard questions, and we answer them every week. Except for the “boffo” thing.
This week we take a hard look at Speed 2: Cruise Control, generally considered to be one of the biggest box office bombs of the 1990s. Following the breakaway success of 1994’s Speed, director Jan de Bont returned to the series in an attempt to turn the original action classic into a franchise. He failed. Whereas the first film was an “adrenaline rush” of sharply written action entertainment, the 1997 sequel was a conventional, plodding bore of a movie. Not so much “bad,” really, as generic, futile and failing to capture the tone, pacing and cleverness of the original film. Whereas Speed miraculously managed to surpass its initial stigma of “Die Hard on a Bus,” Speed 2 merely wallowed in familiar action formulas, replacing likable characters with limp ones and unique set pieces with mostly standard old clichés.
Many believed that Speed 2’s failure was intrinsically linked to its concept: a boat, as opposed to a bus, that can’t stop moving. Of course this premise reduced the element of actual “speed” dramatically, since boats – particularly large boats – don’t move terribly fast in comparison, and even if they did the sense of momentum would be hard to visualize in a cinematic fashion. In order to appear to be moving fast an object has to be filmed moving past something, and the vast emptiness of the ocean does not qualify. But this, alas, was the premise of the film (it was based on a dream that director Jan de Bont had), so it will be our goal this week to fix the film without changing the overall conceit. We’re going to make Speed 2: Cruise Control more like Speed without relying on the same action gimmick or the same leading man, creating an action franchise based on a kind of movie rather than the selling point of the of original film.
Can it be done? Definitely. Here’s how we would have done it.
1. IF THE BOAT CAN’T BE FAST, THE MOVIE HAS TO BE EVEN FASTER
So we’re stuck on the boat. That’s fine. It’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Frankly if Speed 2 had done somethingtoo similar to the original “If this blank goes under so-and-so miles per hour, it’ll blow up” conceit, the movie would never have been be able to step out of the original’s shadow (not that it did, but then again this isn’t the movie’s only problem). Speed didn’t earn its name just because of the bus: the movie propelled itself from one action sequence to another, taking just enough time between them to let the audience catch their breath before it ramped up again. Speed 2 is more conventional – read: slower – with a first act full of character development and setups, punctuated by an entirely pointless chase sequence at the beginning, that doesn’t exactly “speed” along. And then once the action finally gets going it’s a pretty standard scenario in which the heroes run around the boat trying to stop the bad guy. One thing that would have helped would have been to tell the story through the action sequences, rather than to separate them altogether in the first part of the movie. One of the protagonists is a cop. Don’t just give him the empty chase scene he has in the opening minutes of the film, speeding after anonymous bad guys (we never even find out what they did). Give him problems to solve that demonstrate his character and force him to interact with others. Tie Sandra Bullock’s character into the action by having her call him constantly, illustrating their connection and establishing the dichotomy between successful relationships and, as the first Speed so eloquently called them, “intense experiences.”
Another thing Speed 2 needed, and what was missing from the finished film, was a ticking clock once the A-Plot got going. Action needed to be taken constantly and from the get go in order to avert disaster. A series of actions like diffusing bombs, flooding lower levels of the cruise ship and so forth needed to be layered right on top of each other requiring split-second timing and breakneck races across the ship with life-or-death consequences. Time limits were a minor factor in Speed 2, when they should have been the entire point. Speed should be the key component in a sequel to Speed, creating a franchise based on pacing rather than a plot conceit (out of control vehicles) that would – and did – wear thin immediately after one film.
2. MAKE KEANU’S REPLACEMENT LESS LIKE KEANU
Keanu Reeves did not return for Speed 2, but his character did. They just changed the name. Literally, if you cut out a few lines of dialogue in the first act about how Sandra Bullock broke up with Keanu and how she met his replacement, Jason Patric, you could have dropped Keanu back into the movie and nobody would have batted an eye. Sure, his dialogue wasn’t as clever, but Joss Whedon wasn’t around to polish the screenplay like he did the first one. It’s hard for an actor to step out of somebody’s shadow if the filmmakers tell you that the shady spot is your mark.
Jason Patric replaced Keanu Reeves for Speed 2, and despite Stewie Griffin’s disdain (“Jason Patric. Ewwww…!”) he’s not a bad actor. He had just come off of a successful turn in Barry Levinson’s Sleepers. He can handle a different role than Keanu’s. What’s weird is that the film gives him one, but pulls it out from under him.
Sandra Bullock is happy at the start of Speed 2 because her current boyfriend isn’t the adrenaline junkie that Keanu Reeves was. Jason Patric is introduced as a beach cop, prone to catching minor bad guys like purse-snatchers and litterbugs. The “gag,” as it were, is that he’s been lying to her this whole time and is exactly like Keanu Reeves after all. But if he wasn’t like Keanu Reeves, and wasn’t prone to acts of daring heroism all the time, both the character and the movie would have taken on a different personality. A reluctant hero would have been a change of pace, albeit a lot more like Die Hard. But by making Patric into a slightly dorkier police officer, one who actually requested beach patrol, the contrast would have been humorous and his eventual daring-do would have been more exciting, since the odds would have been against him succeeding. He could have a military history if necessary, providing him with an excuse to know how to handle explosives and the like.
We settled on this take on the character because it’s already in the film, but really anyone who didn’t have the exact same background as the first film’s protagonist would have been an improvement. If you have to change actors, let them make the film their own. The James Bond franchise did this with spectacular success, and Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig were all playing the same guy.
NEXT: How to make 'Speed 2's' bad guy badder, how to make the most of a supporting cast and how to fix that stupid-ass title...
3. GET A BETTER BAD GUY
Don’t cast a better bad guy. Willem Dafoe is a perfect villain, as evidenced by To Live and Die in L.A., Wild at Heart and Streets of Fire. But his character in Speed 2 is a weak villain in more ways than one.
Firstly, his motivation is weak. I know we covered this last week in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but it’s Storytelling 101. A motivated character is a stronger character, because their goals are easier to understand and they’re willing to go to greater lengths to achieve them. Any guy who’s going to hijack a cruise ship – all by himself mind you – had better have an excellent reason. Willem Dafoe’s reason is that he developed lethal copper poisoning after working on the cruise ship’s computer systems, and was fired from the company. It’s a reason that only makes sense if don’t think about it for more than two seconds. If he wants to punish and humiliate the cruise line, and take them for all that they’ve got, all he has to do is hire a good lawyer. He’s got a slam-dunk lawsuit on his hands. He’ll put those bastards out of business. There’s no need to hijack a cruise liner. The counter-argument to this is simply, “He’s crazy.” But that’s not enough. Even Heath Ledger’s Joker had a point he wanted to make.
There’s an interesting take on Speed 2 that reads Dafoe’s character as a thinly veiled AIDS victim. For most of the film his ailment is kept under wraps, and only his bizarre “Oh, What A Creepy Thing For A Villain To Do” self-treatment with leeches gives any indication at all that his condition is even blood-based. If he had been fired for having a then-socially unacceptable condition then his fury would have been justified. But they didn’t go there, and frankly by 1997 that kind of corporate behavior was already outmoded. There are all kinds of substitute motivations that could have sufficed for the character, many of them taken from the stock motivation bin: his wife or lover could have been killed in an on-the-job accident, and their death covered up by the corporation to cover a flaw in their cruise liner… a flaw Dafoe could have exploited to hijack it. Yes, it’s not Shakespeare but for Speed 2 it would have worked quite nicely, and definitely made the bad guy more complex and interesting.
But his other big failing is that he’s just one guy. Speed could get away with one bad guy because of the close confines of the plot, and the limited ambition of the villain’s plans (creative though they may have been). In Speed 2, Willem Dafoe has to hijack a damned cruise liner. A couple of accomplices, even hired thugs, who wandered the ship killing passengers would have increased the tension considerably and given the hero someone to actually fight: an action movie necessity given the expanded location size of the sequel. More importantly it would have given Dafoe someone to interact with, making him a more prominent character. As it is, he disappears for huge chunks of the film while the heroes busy themselves solving technical problems with the ship, without any antagonists attempting to stop them. The suspense was minimal as a result.
Better motivations and an underling or two. That would have taken the curse off of it.
4. GIVE THE SUPPORTING CAST SOMETHING TO DO
The makers of Speed 2 wisely realized that one of the defining elements of the original film was a cast of character actors thrust into close-quarters danger via circumstance. The folks on the bus in Speed kept the film from veering too far into clichéd action movie territory by allowing the filmmakers to repeatedly portray the events from the point of view of the bystander, not somebody who catches bad guys for a living who might find life-or-death situations familiar, even if the actual situations themselves were unique. So director Jan de Bont cast a variety of recognizable and talented character actors to populate the boat, including Clue’s Colleen Camp, Wayne’s World’s Mike Hagerty and Twin Peaks’ Kimmy Robertson. That’s a good idea. You know what’s a bad idea? Getting all those great character actors together and giving them nothing to do.
In the first Speed, the bystanders were frequently forced to help Keanu Reeves, putting them in dramatic situations beyond merely being victimized by a madman. In Speed 2 there’s a brief moment in which they’re all trapped in a room and have to work together to survive, but for more than 90% of the movie they’re either off-screen, or merely reacting to Jason Patric’s heroism or the craziness of their situations. Following our first suggestion, and increasing the speed with which Patric needed to accomplish tasks in order to save the day, could have incorporated these characters incorporated seamlessly into the plot. They would have been able to pitch in and perform tasks alien to them, turning them all into heroes or even martyrs (notice how none of them die after the initial disaster, unlike the first film). Don’t waste a good cast. That’s a good rule of thumb for any film.
5. DON’T MAKE THE MOVIE FUNNY, MAKE THE CHARACTERS FUNNY
Speed was a funny movie. But it wasn’t funny because it was a comedy, it was funny because the characters inhabiting that world were funny people. InSpeed 2, many of the characters have no sense of humor whatsoever, including but not limited to Jason Patric, Willem Dafoe and Jango Fett himself, Temuera Morrison. Sandra Bullock’s character has to carry most of the comedic lifting, which unfortunately translates acting manic throughout half the film. Jan de Bont gave the film comedic elements anyway, particularly in the big finale in which the cruise liner crashes into a Caribbean island. Gags including a guy opening and then immediately closing his store when he sees the ship, a dude’s car getting miraculously saved from disaster and then suddenly destroyed at the last minute, and a child’s warnings getting misinterpreted by his parents were included, and completely diffused any tension de Bont could have wrung from what is admittedly already a thoroughly ridiculous set piece.
There was no need to make the world of Speed funny. The film is about life-or-death situations, and in order for those situations to play properly and with any kind of dramatic weight, they need to exist in a realistic world. The film needs to be amusing or it wouldn’t be Speed, but the solution is to get a funnier writer to punch up the characters, not fill the movie with pointless gags. Joss Whedon apparently wasn’t available for the sequel, and Shane Black was probably too expensive, but screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh (Die Hard with a Vengeance), Jim & John Thomas (Executive Decision) and Matt Reeves (Under Siege 2, later the director of Cloverfield) were probably available. Get them.
6. CHANGE THE STUPID TITLE
Maybe this only bugs us, but we think calling the movie Speed 2: Cruise Control was a mistake. Think about it… it’s an oxymoron. The title says that the movie is about acceleration but also, thanks to cruise control, maintaining a safe speed at all times. Sure, it’s a cute play on words, but Speed 2 gets the information across just fine. A nitpick, but damn it, we could have fixed it.
That’s big stuff. Thanks for stopping by. Next week we’ll give the new Robocop remake director Jose Padilha a few ideas by taking a long, hard look at Robocop 3, the film that ruined the franchise. We’ll see you then!