Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Hidden Supporting Cast of "Speed 2"

One of my favorite "bad" movies is "Speed 2: Cruise Control" (1997).  Back in the summer of 1997, I was looking forward to seeing the movie for genuine reasons because I had enjoyed the original "Speed" (1994) immensely and also because two of my favorite actresses, Lois Chiles and Colleen Camp, were featured in the supporting cast.  I even had an unexpected phone conversation with Colleen Camp a few months before the movie premiered.  A friend of mine from college, Dave King (God rest his soul), was temping at Tom Rothman's office at 20th Century-Fox one day when Colleen Camp called the office.  Dave, ever the person to seize the moment, told Ms. Camp all about how I was a big fan of hers and he convinced her to let me interview her for an article about her career.  The next time I spoke with Dave on the phone, he gave me Colleen Camp's phone number to call.  I phoned her to introduce myself and was greeted with a very enthusiastic and fast-talking individual.  I asked her about "Speed 2" and she energetically told me that Jan De Bont was a "phenomenal" director and that she had "a nice, medium-sized part."  I asked her about Lois Chiles's role in the movie and Ms. Camp told me that Chiles had a good part playing the mother of a deaf girl and that she learned sign-language for the role.  (I never got to interview Colleen Camp because she seemed to have a very busy schedule.)  So I had reason to expect the movie would be good.

I remember being shocked, when I saw "Speed 2" on opening night, at how confused and incoherent the movie was at times.  It didn't seem at all like a worthy sequel to what was a very exciting movie.  The jerky camerawork and choppy editing made the movie hard to watch at times.  I was surprised at how slowly-paced the movie was, and how annoying the normally likeable Sandra Bullock was.  She and Jason Patric had no chemistry together.  I was glad that Lois Chiles had a decent amount of screen time, but I kept straining my eyes to find Colleen Camp in the movie.  I could hear her voice in the background throughout the movie, especially during very busy and crowded scenes with characters running around in a panic, but she was nowhere to be found, as the aforementioned clumsy editing and camerawork made it difficult to follow what was going on in the movie.  I wondered at the time, "Had Colleen Camp done something to cause the director to edit her out of the movie?"  (Impossible!)  The other thing I remember from my first viewing of "Speed 2" was the joke my brother made when Colleen Camp and Lois Chiles's names appeared on the same title card during the main title sequence at the end of the movie.  He said, "Wow, putting their names together seems apropos!"  Nevertheless, through the years, I have grown to enjoy "Speed 2," especially when it airs on AMC or FX cable in an extended version that reinserts additional scenes, not included in the theatrical version, back into the story.  I realized that the reason why the movie was so badly received at the time was that the audience expected that it would be an appropriate sequel to an action blockbuster.  As I have watched "Speed 2" on numerous occasions since then, I realized that, buried beneath its Joel Silver action framework, beats the heart of an Irwin Allen-style ensemble disaster movie, bursting to break out.

In subsequent viewings, I began to notice a cast of supporting characters with potentially complex and nuanced relationships that were buried beneath the awkward action hero posturing of Jason Patric and the atypical whining of Sandra Bullock.  There was a large ensemble of characters who made up the passengers and crew members of the cruise ship that the movie was set aboard who looked like they had stumbled in from "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) and "The Towering Inferno" (1974).  What made "The Poseidon Adventure" work as a movie, that other disaster movies aspired to, was the fact that it was ultimately a character-driven piece where the tension and bickering among the passengers fighting to get out of that capsized ocean liner ultimately made the movie memorable.  At the very least, it was much more memorable than its soulless remake "Poseidon" (2006), which didn't bother to develop its characters at all.  You grew to care about the people in "The Poseidon Adventure" because there were recognizable traits in each of them, as broadly portrayed as they were, that made it easy for audiences to identify with them.  I would argue that there are moments in "Speed 2" that suggest the original intent of the movie was to recreate that sort of lively ensemble cast that distinguished the original "Poseidon" from other similar genre movies.

In "Speed 2," you've got Lois Chiles, Francis Guinan and Christine Firkins playing an upper-middle class family with tensions brewing underneath because of the deaf daughter's need to establish an identity for herself despite her uptight father's persistent disapproval.  You've got Colleen Camp and Michael Hagerty playing a good natured, overweight married couple who are vocal advocates of an unconventional diet plan called "Fat Busters."  You've got Connie Ray and Patrika Darbo as a pair of sisters from the South on vacation together.  You've got Charles Parks and Susan Barnes as a bitter, middle-aged married couple.  You've got Kimmy Robertson and Tamia playing hapless members of the ship's crew trying to keep the passengers calm.  And you've got Enrique Murciano and Jessica Diz as a newlywed couple on their honeymoon.  What's interesting is that none of these characters exist as plot devices in the main storyline involving Jason Patric or Sandra Bullock's efforts to defeat villain Willem Dafoe's plan to sabotage the cruise ship for his own nefarious purposes.  Usually, in action blockbusters like these, cut from the "Die Hard" mode, there is only enough room for characters that play a role in resolving the main crisis at-hand.  The fact that the movie features all of these supporting characters lends credence to the notion that part of the intent of the movie was to recreate the sort of "Grand Hotel" type movie that had been popular decades before.  If you look at "Speed 2" as an action blockbuster movie, it is an utter failure.  If you look at it, as I have suggested, as an attempt at an Irwin Allen-style ensemble disaster movie, you might find more to enjoy.

What appears to undermine the movie is the fact that director Jan De Bont can't seem to decide which of these two filmmaking genres he's trying to accomplish here.  The movie never works as an exciting action blockbuster because the premise of the cruise ship being hijacked and going out of control just does not lend itself to the sort of lightening, breathless pace of the original "Speed."  Nevertheless, De Bont continues to try to squeeze this square peg into a round hole by emphasizing that aspect of the movie over everything else.  As a result, the movie focuses far too much time on the Jason Patric and Sandra Bullock characters.  As mentioned before, Patric simply does not have the screen presence to be an effective action hero, Bullock is not nearly as charming or integral to the storyline as she was in the original "Speed," and neither of them have any convincing chemistry with each other.  You spend the entire movie rue-ing the fact that Keanu Reeves (understandably) refused to do this sequel.

Because the film spends so much time with Jason Patric and Sandra Bullock, it never completely takes advantage of recreating the sort of Irwin Allen/"Grand Hotel" disaster ensemble movie of the 1970s.  As a result, the supporting cast of passengers and crew members never get a chance to have enough screen-time to recreate the sort of chemistry that the original "Poseidon Adventure" ensemble had.  That's the reason why it is not easy to recognize the interrelationships of the passengers the first time you see the movie.  It's only when you see it again on cable, especially in the longer TV version, that you realize who is related to who.  (The net effect is like watching a Robert Altman movie, where in subsequent viewings more and more nuances become apparent.)  The only supporting cast members who get any decent screen-time are the deaf girl Drew and her parents.  Christine Firkins brings dignity and intelligence to the role of Drew.  I liked how, when Drew is separated from her family, and her parents are panicking, she is depicted as resourceful, calm, and poised.  Lois Chiles and Francis Guinan also do good work playing Drew's parents, Celeste and Rupert. With minimal amounts of screentime, Chiles and Guinan are still able to create a married couple who are disconnected from each other due to probable ennui and complacency.

There's a scene early in the movie where all the characters are above deck dancing to a band.  While the foreground of the scene involves Bullock exchanging dialogue with Dafoe and Patric, you see Rupert and Celeste in the background sitting at the bar.  Rupert is wearing a suit and tie, Celeste is wearing an attractive dress.  They both look like they are out for a night of dinner and dancing in Manhattan rather than on a cruise in the Bahamas.  What's notable are the little nuances Guinan and Chiles give to Rupert and Celeste in this scene to establish their relationship.   Rupert is busy reading his newspaper at the bar, while Celeste takes a sip from her drink.  Neither of them are talking with each other.  Because both actors stayed "in character" with their choices in this scene, even when the focus was on other characters, they establish in short-hand that something is wrong with that marriage.

I also like the silent moments of sadness and discomfort when Celeste witnesses Rupert's continual disapproval of their daughter Drew.  Chiles does a good job depicting Celeste's awkwardness as she witnesses the disconnect between her husband and daughter.  The first time I saw the movie, I never understood why Rupert and Celeste didn't go after Drew after she ran away from them before dinner because of their argument over the dress she was wearing.  It just seemed like a plot device by the screenwriters to create a potential crisis later on in the movie by separating Drew from her parents--and it probably was.  However, because the actors have invested as much as they can into their characters, I now interpret the scene as an indication that this is simply the latest in another series of arguments between father and daughter.  Rupert and Celeste appear unconcerned when Drew runs away from them because they've probably been through it before with her.  Because Chiles, Guinan and Firkins are committed to their roles, they look like a real family together.

Since the premise of "Speed 2" was such a non-starter, director De Bont should have tried to focus more attention on the supporting cast.  He might have at least taken advantage of the cast he had assembled and allowed them to attempt to create the sort of "Poseidon Adventure" ensemble chemistry that endeared audiences to the personalities of that earlier movie.  Rather than giving all the action and heroism to the bland Jason Patric, or focused so much attention on the inexplicably whiney Sandra Bullock, De Bont could have spread the heroism around equally to the other characters, allowing them to have moments to distinguish themselves and shine.  I would have liked it if Colleen Camp or Patrika Darbo got to become the Shelley Winters of "Speed 2," sacrificing her life for the good of her fellow passengers.  Or if Tamia got to become the Carol Lynley of "Speed 2," frightened and vulnerable and touching, rather than just taking up space on-screen doing nothing.  Or if Francis Guinan and Charles Parks argued with each other the way Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine debated the proper course of action, with Michael Hagerty (standing in for Red Buttons) trying to make peace between them.  Or if Lois Chiles and Susan Barnes were allowed chances to be as earthy, feisty, and sardonic as Stella Stevens was in the original "Poseidon."  As contrived as all of that might sound, it would have made a better "Speed 2" than what Jan De Bont ultimately turned in. 

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