At a time when many big-screen blockbusters think entertaining the audience is the same as assaulting it, Jan De Bont's pictures stand out for a simple reason: They're fun.
Moviegoers learned this when he made his directorial debut with "Speed," about a booby-trapped bus rigged to explode if its amateur driver - Sandra Bullock! - lets the speedometer drop below 50.
More evidence came in "Twister," starring Bill Paxton as a macho meteorologist whose romantic life is as turbulent as the tornadoes he's studying.
Mr. De Bont's newest concoction pits him against Hollywood's most daunting challenge: convincing millions of thrill-sated spectators that the sequel to a recent favorite is as enjoyable as the original.
"Speed 2: Cruise Control" isn't piling up profits as dazzlingly as its namesake did, but its numbers are bound to be impressive when the final tallies are in. Not bad for an ocean-liner adventure where the biggest question is why all those imperiled passengers don't just jump off the ship.
Part of the picture's entertainment value comes from its casting. Bullock is back as the heroine, on a seagoing vacation with her police-officer boyfriend, and Willem Dafoe is menacingly good as the demented computer expert who hijacks their vessel.
Still, the nonstop energy of "Speed 2" must be credited largely to De Bont's feisty hand at the helm. He guided the filmmaking process from start to finish, aided by the crafty eye he developed as a cinematographer on movies like "Die Hard" and "Basic Instinct."
One of the Dutch-born director's best assets is the fact that he knows the difference between hard-hitting action and hard-boiled mayhem. "To be honest," he says about excessive movie violence, "I'm against it."
He speaks from experience. "I worked on movies with a lot of violence when I was a cinematographer," he recalls, "and it always bothered me. It's a personal thing. I wouldn't want my kids to see it. I certainly believe that freedom of expression shouldn't be taken away, but I also believe you can make movies that are thrilling and exciting without too much violence. Directors should have [a sense of] responsibility about this."
De Bont feels this way not because he's squeamish, but because he's concerned about social consequences. "I believe we're very much influenced by what we see," he says. "I would never, never want to be responsible for putting something [violent] on the screen that someone might later copy.... If the story has violence, let it happen off-screen or let the audience imagine it. People have an imagination!"
Despite his views, De Bont doesn't expect the fashion for violence to die down soon. "We're surrounded by violence," he observes, "and we see so much of it on TV, especially the news programs. We almost become numb. And that forces filmmakers to try to outdo themselves.... They say, 'Look what I can do,' and it becomes like a showoff thing. To me that's ridiculous. Filmmaking isn't a contest!"
Also escalating in the movies is action based on expensive high-tech effects. "This is scary," De Bont says. "The audience doesn't want the same product they got last year.... You have to come up with something new every time."
Sooner or later, he continues, this trend will have to end. "We can't simply get bigger and bigger," he predicts. "The movies would become simply unaffordable.... And even the audience will get jaded. They get so used to seeing these things, it all just becomes one giant movie.... So we have to try to turn things around."
This sounds like a daunting task - akin to turning the "Speed 2" ship in its lumbering path - but De Bont knows what the starting point should be.
"I think we have to ... be more story-oriented," he says. "Technology is a major tool in exploring and challenging your creativity, but it can also overtake your creativity.... My mind goes very fast, and I can see all kinds of images that would be spectacular on the screen. But they would cost so much money, and would they really make the story that much better? We have to take another look at this, because otherwise it's a dead-end street."
None of which means De Bont has an intimate little drama in his future. Action pictures are his specialty, and he doesn't plan a change any time soon.
"This kind of movie is something I really like," he admits with a smile. "Even as a cinematographer, I picked movies like this to film.... Every time you start one, you go into adventureland. It's new territory, and you have to come up with new ideas and new solutions that have never been done before. Using my imagination and creativity is exciting to me."