One of Keanu Reeves’s best movies is Speed, a 1994 classic film about a bus that cannot go less than 50 miles per hour or else a bomb will kill everyone on board. His character, Jack Traven, is a SWAT team member with a good heart and a brave attitude who helps save every passenger, including his love interest Annie (played by Sandra Bullock). However, if it wasn’t for one simple suggestion from Keanu Reeves, then his character could have been very different, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Keanu Reeves made a simple suggestion to Joss Whedon, and it was the perfect way to describe his Speed character, SWAT officer Jack Traven.
Graham Yost wrote the original script for Speed, but Joss Whedon eventually joined the production and helped to write most of the characters’ dialogue. While he was working on Jack’s dialogue, Keanu Reeves told him that he met with real SWAT guys and that they were always very polite, saying, “they’re only about defusing the situation, they call everybody ‘sir or ‘ma’am.’”
When Joss Whedon heard this, he immediately understood who Jack’s character was and how we would act in a situation. While discussing the film on the podcast 50 MPH, he said, “My take on it was: He wasn’t a hot shot, he was a lateral thinker. He was going to do what felt right and have an odd approach to it, but generally speaking, it would work out.”
“…they’re only about defusing the situation, they call everybody ‘sir or ‘ma’am.’”
Keanu Reeves describing real-life SWAT officers
This thought process certainly holds up when watching Speed, since Keanu Reeves’s character makes odd decisions throughout the film that end up saving lives. For instance, in the beginning of the film, when his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) is being held hostage by Howard (Dennis Hopper), he shoots the hostage to confuse the terrorist. It ultimately works out, and Harry is let go with his life, though he suffers from a bullet wound in his leg.
When reflecting on the simple suggestion, Joss Whedon shared, “That ‘sir or ma’am’ gave me so much, because bluster [in action movie heroes] was the order of the day and this was the opposite.” Back in the 90s, action movies often starred loud, aggressive protagonists like Kurt Russell in Escape from L.A. and Bruce Willis in Die Hard with a Vengeance, so it was a real change of pace to have a polite yet badass hero in an action movie.
When working on the script for Speed, Keanu Reeves told Joss Whedon, “I don’t want to pull my gun,” but the writer told him he would have to for the studios. Despite this, Jack doesn’t use his gun to kill any characters in the film. Instead, he uses his quick, clever thinking to behead Dennis Hopper while on the roof of a subway car.
“My take on it was: He wasn’t a hot shot, he was a lateral thinker. He was going to do what felt right and have an odd approach to it, but generally speaking, it would work out.”
Joss Whedon describing Keanu Reeves character in Speed
Even though Keanu Reeves is not portrayed as a hot shot in Speed, the film’s most famous line is ironically, “Pop quiz, hot shot!” which is said by Dennis Hopper’s character. There has been much debate over who came up with the catchy line of dialogue because it wasn’t Joss Whedon or Graham Yost. The host of 50 PMH, Kris Tapley, believes it was written by Paul Attanasio, though he cannot recall if he was responsible for it or not.
There were many minds who worked on the script for Speed, but the one who received sole credit was Graham Yost. He spent years working on the project to develop the storyline and characters, while Joss Whedon came on at the last minute to write most of the script’s dialogue. Shortly after the film debuted, the two had a falling out since Whedon was upset that he did not receive credit for his work on the script.