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Did you know? How Joss Whedon helped write ‘Speed' - stream it now on Peacock

Whedon’s the reason Keanu Reeves played it cool in his 1994 bus bomb ride-along.

By Benjamin Bullard
Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock in Speed (1994)

Long before he dodged bullets as Neo or stalked assassins as John Wick, Keanu Reeves already was plenty famous for playing characters as diverse as Bill & Ted’s Ted Logan and Point Break’s Johnny Utah. But it was Speed that shot Keanu to the next level of action hero status a full five years before he followed the white rabbit in The Matrix, lighting up the 1994 box office with an adrenaline-fueled public transit hell ride alongside costar Sandra Bullock.

Reeves played L.A. cop Jack Traven in the Jan de Bont-directed rescue caper (which, by the way, is now streaming at Peacock). Perfectly vibed into Reeves’ understated acting style, Jack’s a nice guy, winning over disaster-bound bus hostages with a mix of competent coolness and an unflinchingly polite protect-and-serve demeanor.

RELATED: Keanu’s best action movies, ranked from ‘The Matrix’ to ‘John Wick’

Many fans likely never realized, though, that Reeves’ whole good-cop persona wasn’t the way his character was originally written. It wasn’t until late in Speed’s development that de Bont roped in an early-career Joss Whedon — whose sole prior big-screen writing credit at that point was the original 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie (Whedon's Buffy TV series was still three years away) — to bring a tweak to Speed’s characters and substantially rework their dialogue.

Reeves’ hero cop was originally meant to be a smack-talking wise guy, a maverick type of character who chews up the scenery and spits it out again by way of funny, confrontational one-liners. Instead, Whedon dialed back the sass and made him way more sympathetic for the terrified bus passengers his hero was there to save. Still, one tiny bit of snark talk — Reeves’ “Pop quiz, hot shot” one-liner — did remain in the finished film, though as Whedon explained in a 2014 chat with The Huffington Post, even that wasn’t his idea.

“The biggest change for me came for me came from Keanu. The whole ‘Pop quiz, hot shot,’ was not me,” said Whedon. “There was this idea of Jack as this cop on the edge, who plays by his own rules, you know, ‘He's a maverick! He's out of control!’ Apart from Die Hard, which really made room for a thoughtful action hero, everybody [in action movies] had been that sort of thing.”

Hey, a soft-spoken savior is just what you need when you’re trying to keep it above 50 mph (so a stowaway bomb won’t blow your Los Angeles commute all to hell). Whedon’s uncredited writing contributions did the trick, too, helping elevate de Bont’s directing debut into a $350 million box office smash that earned back roughly ten times its reported production budget.

“Joss Whedon wrote 98.9 percent of the dialogue," Speed screenwriter Graham Yost would later explain, years after the film had, ahem, sped its way into pop culture fame. "We were very much in sync, it's just that I didn't write the dialogue as well as he did. That was a hard part of the whole Speed thing. It's my name up there, but I didn't write the whole thing.”

“In my whole career, I’ve never had to talk about it,” Whedon told The Huffington Post. “…And I was proud of it, I worked hard on it, I had a really great time and I worked with really cool people. I thought it was good stuff. Graham has been very generous, but I did not get a credit on it. The studio gave me one, but then the Writers Guild of America took it away, and I was pretty devastated. I have the only poster with my credit on it.”

So why isn’t Whedon officially remembered for one of his biggest early-career writing gigs? “It has to do with WGA [Writers Guild of America] bylaws,” he explained. “You can come in and rewrite all of the dialogue, and still not get credit. They didn't think I made big enough changes to the plot. I actually did a lot of overhaul, but much of it was to a later draft, so it went back to what Graham originally had.”

At least credit Reeves and Bullock for getting the best of Speed baddie Howard Payne (played in viciously vintage acting form by the late Dennis Hopper). Catch the bus anytime to see Whedon’s writing handiwork in action: Speed is streaming right now at Peacock.