In the 1980s and ’90s, it wasn’t uncommon for studios to mine pre-existing spec screenplays for sequel premises. While developing “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” 20th Century Fox kicked the tires on a script called “Troubleshooter,” which would’ve plopped bad-luck magnet John McClane on a terrorist-packed cruise ship. The studio ultimately opted for another spec, Jonathan Hensleigh’s “Simon Says,” which might’ve been “Rapid Fire 2” had Brandon Lee not been killed on the set of “The Crow.” But “Troubleshooter” would have its day, disastrously so.
When “Beverly Hills Cop II” scorched the box office in 1987, Paramount Pictures traveled down this repurposing road while trying to find the next bullet-whizzing adventure for Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley. The studio was up against a wall. They were dealing with a resistant star, a pile of half-baked pitches (including one from “Chinatown” screenwriter Robert Towne), and a shifting commercial landscape that had moved past Murphy’s fast-talking detective. They needed to re-bait the fish-out-of-water hook that turned the first entry into the top grossing film of 1984 (yes, it was bigger than “Ghostbusters”). This is a precarious place for a franchise to be, but studios don’t throw in the towel when the previous installment was a blockbuster.
So when Graham Yost, a thirtysomething screenwriter with a handful of middling TV credits to his name, pitched Paramount on an original action film set entirely on a bomb-wired city bus, the studio (briefly) considered it as a potential, paradigm-shifting exploit for Foley.
Die Hard meets Beverly Hills Cop on a runaway bus
According to Kris Tapley’s new and wholly engrossing making-of-“Speed” podcast 50 MPH, Yost had an eager buyer in Paramount production VP Don Granger. “I really wanted to try to mount the movie,” Granger said on a recent episode. But when he couldn’t get his fellow execs interested in a standalone action film about a bus rigged to explode if it dips below 50 miles per hour, he conspired to get the studio’s still-under-contract star onboard.
As Granger explained:
“I got about 15 minutes of traction before it was dismissed, because that was back when the mandate was to find a ‘Beverly Hills Cop III.’ So I was like, ‘Let’s put Axel Foley on the bus.’ It was a Hail Mary, man. I might maintain it was a better movie, it would have been a better movie than ultimately what we got for ‘Beverly Hills Cop III,’ but that was my final Hail Mary.”
That’s a helluva what if, one that’s well worth entertaining.
You need a busload of faith (and no Eddie Murphy) to get by
Under ideal circumstances, Eddie Murphy bantering with Sandra Bullock or whichever leading lady he preferred — his “Boomerang” costar Halle Berry would’ve been crackerjack casting — sounds like a franchise-saving smash. But Murphy had just sleepwalked through “Another 48 Hrs,” and was on record saying a third “Beverly Hills Cop” would be nothing but a paycheck gig. This film needed to play at the breakneck velocity of a “Lethal Weapon” or “Die Hard” movie, something Murphy seemed disinterested in at the time.
There’s much more to this story (listen to the podcast!), but Paramount passing on “Speed” meant the project could find its best home at action-centric 20th Century Fox, which brought on upstart screenwriter Joss Whedon to give the film a knowing sense of humor (which doesn’t stop the film dead in its tracks like a classic, all-eyes-on-me Murphy riff would’ve done).
There are millions of ways “Speed” could’ve gone wrong, and very few paths to the blockbuster immortality it achieved. For those keeping score: “Speed” grossed $121 million domestically, and firmly established Keanu Reeves as a world-class action star; “Beverly Hills Cop III” reunited Murphy with his “Trading Places” and “Coming to America” director John Landis to limp effect; and, 12 years later, Granger produced Towne’s masterful adaptation of John Fante’s “Ask the Dust.”
As for “Troubleshooter,” it eventually got repurposed as “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” a franchise-killer for the ages.