The notoriously terrible Speed 2: Cruise Control would have been a disaster with or without the involvement of former franchise star Keanu Reeves. Although the Matrix actor ultimately ended up passing on the role, Reeve’s absence was far from the most significant factor behind the movie’s below-par performance at the box office. In fact, given the raft of problems with the production, it’s debatable whether his involvement would have had any kind of tangible impact whatsoever.
Following the success of the original 1994 movie, Speed 2 took the questionable step of shifting the action from an explosives-rigged bus in downtown Los Angeles to a cruise liner in the middle of the ocean. Featuring the returning talents of director and former Die Hard cinematographer Jan de Bont and star of the first movie Sandra Bullock, the 1997 follow-up also boasts the likes of Willem Dafoe as a scenery-chewing villain and The Lost Boys actor Jason Patric. The plot revolves around a deranged former cruise ship employee (Dafoe) who exacts revenge on his old paymasters by hijacking a luxury vessel and programming it to crash into an oil tanker. Widely regarded as one of the worst sequels ever made, the film raked in between $100-160 million at the box office against a budget of $164 million and netted a woeful 4% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Although Reeves had been expected to return for Speed 2, he eventually declined – forcing the studio to turn to Patric. However, while Reeves’ roguish LAPD officer Jack Traven was a key element of the first film’s success, the sequel’s long list of problems went far beyond the leading man. From a shoddy script to a fundamentally flawed premise, the movie’s issues were simply too deep-rooted to be overcome by one returning superstar. Although audiences may have been slightly more enthused by a returning Jack Traven, the fact is that the litany of issues with Speed 2 probably doomed it to failure from the outset.
The most obvious issue with the film, which has nothing to do with whether Keanu Reeves played a significant part, was the setting. Part of what made the first movie one of the best action films of the 90s was the sight of a packed bus hurtling through a major city – with all the obstacles that entails. The keeping a bus moving at 50 miles an hour premise which defined the initial Speed concept is instead almost entirely absent from the sequel. Not only are there no immediate threats in the middle of the open ocean, but giant cruise liners are also incapable of traveling at anything like the breakneck pace that gave the franchise its name. Thus, Speed 2 undermined a key factor that made the first film so compelling.
Although the Speed 2 location is definitely questionable, it’s far from the only issue with the film. Contemporary critics lambasted the production for its flimsy characterization and laughable plot – as well as criticizing the absence of Reeves. As the Rotten Tomatoes critical summary explains: “Speed 2 falls far short of its predecessor, thanks to laughable dialogue, thin characterization, unsurprisingly familiar plot devices, and action sequences that fail to generate any excitement.” This comprehensive critique highlights how, even with John Wick-star Keanu Reeves’ involvement, the sequel still had a metaphorical mountain to climb.
While it’s always easy to criticize a failure with the benefit of hindsight, many of Speed 2’s problems were evident from the outset. Indeed, Reeves himself has since revealed that from the moment he saw the script, he had his doubts. As he explained in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel (via YouTube): “It was about a cruise ship, and I was like … bus not so fast, but then a cruise ship is even slower than a bus. And I was just like, ‘I love you guys, but I just can’t do it’.” Reeves has also claimed that his refusal to take part resulted in him being placed on a Fox Studios blacklist for several years until his role in the 2008 flop The Day The Earth Stood Still. Given Speed 2: Cruise Control’s abject failure, it’s understandable that some hopeful viewers remain convinced that the outcome could have been different had Reeves been involved. However, it’s clear from the slew of issues associated with the movie that the disappointing end result was beyond his control.