One's fast; the other creeps. One skates along the surface of events; the other plumbs legend for meaning. One explodes; the other implodes. Speed (1994, FoxVideo, R, $19.98) and Wyatt Earp (1994, Warner, PG-13, priced for rental) have absolutely nothing in common, aside from the fact that both films were made and marketed to rule the box office this past summer. Only Speed succeeded, and not just because it was the better-made movie. In the gap between these two, you'll find a snapshot of a shift in pop tastes a moment in which what audiences want to see in a given season and what some Hollywood moviemakers think audiences want to see may be passing each other like buses in the night.
To some extent, timing is a factor, and Wyatt Earp's timing was just plain bad. On the heels of another version of the same story (1993's Tombstone), this 191-minute Kevin Costner oater also came at the end of the latest spate of big-budget ''revisionist'' Westerns that began with Costner's own Dances With Wolves. This time the cycle was notable for realistic blood, morality in shades of gray, and an all-encompassing lack of humor. Whatever their merits, the two big Oscar winners in the group, Wolves and Eastwood's Unforgiven, are dour affairs, dancing with self-importance throughout.
Wyatt Earp is Costner and director Lawrence Kasdan's attempt to one-up Unforgiven. Not only does it tell the story of a morally complex one might say morally damned gunfighter hero, it tells the whole story, from the end of the Civil War to 1909. That Earp actually existed (unlike Eastwood's William Munny) makes his life a powerful metaphor for the American experience.
That's the idea, anyway. But Kasdan and Costner (who together made the peppy, likable Silverado back in an earlier sagebrush cycle) seem weighted down by their mission. Kasdan especially is working against his gift for breezy narrative. As the huge cast tramps through legendary places like Dodge City and Tombstone, the viewer waits and waits for a point to be made. That there is no point seems to be the only point. Wyatt Earp presents unvarnished historical realism as a kind of ultimate Truth, and it might actually work if Kasdan didn't keep piling on the Western-movie clichés and if James Newton Howard's score didn't drown out the few scruffy ironies with unearned emotion.
For all its tough-guy badness, Wyatt Earp is meant to be Good For You. So were Dances and Unforgiven, but the time may have passed for such bitter movie medicine. This summer's megaselling health tonic was a fruit punch called Forrest Gump, and Speed is just straight cinematic Jolt Cola.
Part of Speed's unexpected pleasure lies in seeing slacker poster boy Keanu Reeves mutate into a thick-necked yet witty action figure. It's an interesting notion the film's star is its twist and it can only work if the surrounding action is clean, fast, and unpretentious. And if the plot can be summed up in one excited blurt to be passed down the ticket line: madman rigs a city bus to blow up if it goes below 50 mph.
Dennis Hopper (psycho villain) and Sandra Bullock (perky love interest) add extra value, but Reeves, as SWAT team commando Jack Traven, is what makes Speed take off. The joke is in the ease with which he makes the transition: With only minor tweaking, his zonked Bill-and-Ted charm becomes noble derring-do. And until the final 10 minutes (i.e., once they get off that bus), Speed is both a reminder of the pleasures of well-done mindlessness and graceful evidence that Hollywood's newest generation of talent can play the box office game if and when it wants to. It makes the somber meandering of Wyatt Earp look like middle-aged spread. Speed: A- Wyatt Earp: C-