The Man of Action as a Source of Strength
In his 1864 novel, Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes about how the conscience man is paralyzed by his thoughts, crippled by insecurity. If Dostoyevsky is indeed correct, Jack Traven, the protagonist of the film Speed, may not possess an ounce of consciousness. Over the course of the film, Traven saves an elevator’s worth of people with a crane, tries to disarm a bomb on the base of a moving bus, and frees a hostage from a vest lined with explosives. In the early moments of the film, he even shoots his partner as a way to resolve a hostage situation. This man clearly posses little, if any, self-doubt. And Traven’s status as a “man of action” isn’t limited to his own finitude, as other characters siphon some of his strength. Annie Porter, a spunky twenty something, catches the bus one day just to learn from Traven that the vehicle will explode if it reaches a speed under fifty miles per hour. After the bus driver is shot in an altercation, Annie takes the wheel as Traven thinks of ways to diffuse the situation. At first glance, Porter exemplifies the independent woman – intelligent, witty, and able to drive a large bus at high speeds, an activity one almost always associates with men. Yet, throughout the film it becomes clear that Porter is not truly independent and powerful, as she owes her bus driving skills along with her life to Traven, her man of action.
In her book, The Violent Woman, Hilary Neroni makes the argument that from the moment Traven climbs aboard the bus, he is there “to protect Annie.”[i] This position is not only indicative of Traven’s role in the film, but also of his place in society. The character of Jack Traven is a white male who lives to protect. He’s a cop, one who likes to party, save lives, and make passive comparisons between his work and sexual acts. In fact, early in the film “after the elevator crashes, Jack and [his partner] Harry sit down and take a breath, and they say to each other, ‘Was it good for you?’ ‘It was great for me.’”[ii] This exchange between not only coworkers, but also friends, illustrates the way sexuality is engrained into the male psyche, how every act of bravery is an act of masculinity. And as an audience we rarely think twice about this exchange, for from Uncle Sam to James Dean to Keanu Reeves, the prevalent cultural ideology has taught us that the heterosexual white male is here to protect. This ideology is evident throughout Speed but discards any veil of subtlety right after Harry has been killed. Jack receives the news, and for a moment, becomes despondent, paralyzed by self-doubt. His masculinity challenged. But Annie pleads with him, “Don’t give up on me. We are really scared and we need you right now. I can’t do this by myself.”[iii] This quote not only affirms Annie as a female who needs a male protector but also establishes that Jack Traven needs to be reminded that people depend on him in order to save the day. After Annie delivers that line, Jack returns to his previous ways. Any blow his masculinity may have taken in the aftermath of his friend’s death is mitigated with the knowledge that people need him. In the world of Speed masculinity triumphs any self-doubt, any consciousness.
Annie, despite her goofy ponytails and innocent eyes, drives a bus over a gap in the freeway. This physical act, coupled with her sharp tongue and wit, may lead some to argue that she is an accurate portrayal of a young, independent woman. Yet, any illusion of Annie as a feminist icon is undermined in the film’s final minutes. As Traven and the rest of the LAPD close in on the location of Howard Payne, the film’s antagonist, Annie is told to stay inside the van. However, curious about the current situation, Annie ventures outside and is not only captured by Payne himself, but has a vest lined with explosives forced upon her. In the sequences that follow, Payne gets the hostage money that was promised to him, and with Annie in tow, tries to escape by way of the subway. Yet, Traven is privy to Payne’s plan and pursues him underground, the final play in what has been an a hundred and sixteen-minute pissing contest between the film’s two central male figures. However, down in the subway, it is clear that Traven is one step ahead as a paint bomb explodes all over Payne and the money. In this moment, as Neroni points out, “[Payne] realizes at this point that he has lost all possibility of regaining his masculinity. When he realizes this he has a violent fit – punching, kicking, and screaming.”[iv] This outburst is the physical manifestation of Payne’s humiliation, his castration, at the hands of Traven. Payne, frustrated at Traven’s success, leads the young cop to the top of the train. If masculinity is to be reclaimed, Traven must die. Yet, Payne’s eagerness to reclaim his manhood proves to be the end of him, as a low-hanging ledge literally takes his head off. In the aftermath of the battle, Traven returns to the interior of the train, ready to reclaim Annie as his own. However, he finds her handcuffed to a pole and the train out of control. In this moment, Annie argues with him to go, to leave her to her fate. Two people don’t have to die here. This argument is reasonable, it may be cowardice in the realm of action stars, but it at least makes sense. Yet, the ideology of male as protector finds a way to triumph over all. Jack saves both of their lives and the film ends with them on the ground, kissing as people applaud. The hero has not only reclaimed his masculinity, but has also won the girl. The same girl, who a moment ago made a sound argument for her independent death, is in his arms. Her autonomous decision making ability rendered mute by his ability to protect.
On first glance, Annie Porter may come across as a strong, independent woman. She drives an explosives bus all over Los Angeles and cracks one-liners at the expense of her fellow riders. Yet, at the end of the day, she is at the mercy of two men’s masculinity – Traven’s protective spirit and Payne’s impotence based frustrations. And by the end of the film, she owes Traven not just driving ability but also her life. In this context, Porter is not a true independent woman, just a male construct of one. She is able to engage in both mental and physical give and take, but in the end, does nothing to disrupt the ideology of the male protector, the man of action.
[i] Neroni, Hilary. The Violent Woman. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005. 57. Print.
[ii] Neroni, Hilary. The Violent Woman. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005. 47. Print.
[iii] Neroni, Hilary. The Violent Woman. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005. 57. Print.
[iv] Neroni, Hilary. The Violent Woman. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005. 53. Print.