To continue functioning as a moviegoer these days, one must sustain the absurd optimism that Liz Taylor brings to the nuptial altar. Experience has proved that the odds of seeing something worthwhile, especially from Hollywood, are minimal. But as the lights dim, you hope against hope that this time will be one of those rare exceptions.

One such unexpected windfall was Jan De Bont’s 1994 Speed. That movie’s central action sequence, set on a booby-trapped L.A. bus, was ingeniously protracted and kinetically directed, careening along at a breathless clip. The ride was so entertaining that one could generously forgive the lame, overblown subway finale. Although hardly a thinking man’s thriller, Speed delivered the goods.

De Bont’s follow-up, last summer’s moronic cash cow Twister, came as a sobering letdown, but the chance remained that he might be able to return to form in a Speed sequel. No such luck. Speed 2: Cruise Control is a disastrous disaster movie, worse than Volcano, Daylight, and other recent clunkers spawned by the cynical bean-counters now green-lighting major studio productions. You have to squirm through it yourself to fully appreciate its rottenness, but I’ll do what I can to convey some sense of what you’re up against.

Sandra Bullock returns as Annie, who piloted that bus through a minefield of obstacles but, irony of ironies, has yet to pass her driver’s exam. She has broken up with Jack (Keanu Reeves, no brain trust, was shrewd enough to jump ship on this project) and begun dating Alex (Jason Patric), another LAPD daredevil cop. Armed with an engagement ring, the smitten Alex invites relationship-wary Annie to join him for a Caribbean cruise on the Seabourn Legend, during which he intends to pop the question. Their fellow passengers include the standard cross section of what Hollywood regards as humanity—a deaf nymphet and her posh parents, a honeymooning couple, and some overdressed comic-relief fat people—along with the villainous Geiger (Willem Dafoe), whose cabin contains a stockpile of computer equipment and a bottle of leeches.

Although the connect-the-dots screenplay, scribbled by Randall McCormick and Jeff Nathanson, isn’t terribly clear on this point, Geiger, who designed the ship’s computer system, developed a life-threatening blood ailment from his high-tech job and was subsequently fired by his callous employers. To retaliate for this shabby treatment, he plans to take control of the Seabourn Legend’s navigational hardware, terrify the passengers into abandoning ship, and cop a fortune in diamonds stashed on board. (How he expects to escape without being apprehended, or, indeed, why he doesn’t choose to execute this scheme while the vessel is docked, are questions the film blithely chooses not to address.) Inevitably, Alex and Annie outwit him, but only after an hour of crudely photographed, incoherently staged action pieces, climaxed by the ship’s decimation of a St. Martin resort town and the explosion of an oil tanker.

There’s no need to analyze the movie’s cheesy plot or its minimalist dialogue, which consists largely of characters barking, “Oh shit!” and moaning, “Oh my God!” But the performers do deserve a bit of attention. With their usual perceptiveness, Hollywood execs decided that Bullock was somehow responsible for Speed’s success, an assumption swiftly disproved by a string of follow-up flops including The Net, A Time to Kill, Two if by Sea, and In Love and War. From the tip of her apparently surgically altered nose to her indigo-polished toenails, she’s easy enough to look at but an embarrassingly gauche actress. A cross between a perky summer-camp counselor and a yenta-in-training, and oozing counterfeit charm—girlie smiles and stuttering bewilderment—she’s unpleasantly reminiscent of shark-toothed cruise-ship huckstress Kathie Lee Gifford. Bullock’s gratingly mannered notion of naturalistic expression includes prefacing her lines with triplet stammers. (“Wh-wh-where is he?” she inquires when Alex vanishes, and “So wha-wha-what does that mean?” when confused.) This bit of fluff’s ascent to stardom speaks volumes about Tinseltown’s fear and loathing of non-ding-a-ling women.

An ambitious actor drawn to demanding roles (the junkie in Rush, the addled fighter in After Dark, My Sweet), the butch, ideally handsome Patric has obviously booked passage on this leaky vessel to bolster his flagging screen bankability. Attempting to preserve what’s left of his artistic integrity, he merely lends his physical presence to the film without making any effort to personalize his generic beefcake role. Gat-toothed Dafoe, another thespic heavyweight, goes the opposite route with an over-the-top-psychopath turn, complete with bulging eyes, hysterical cackles, and hair greasy enough to fry wontons in. The supporting cast, which includes the obligatory canine, shrieks, weeps, bleeds (and barks) on cue.

The directorial skills that De Bont previously displayed in such abundance have deserted him in Speed 2. The action sequences are so messily shot and edited that one can’t really be sure what’s happened until the scenes are over. Jack Green’s photography lacks tonal balance and nuance, and Mark Mancina’s noisy score alternates unspeakable Ramada Inn lounge music with thundering orchestrations intended to hype up and fuse the fragmented images.

Moviegoers in search of a luxury-liner epic are advised to wait for Titanic, James Cameron’s runaway production that has been postponed until December and is already the most expensive movie ever made. With any luck, Titanic will prove to be a more seaworthy vehicle than Speed 2’s Seabourn Legend. And at least we won’t have to worry about a sequel.CP