Need for Speed (2014) / Action-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language
Running Time: 130 min.
Cast: Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Harrison Gilbertson, Dakota Johnson, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Michael Keaton
Director: Scott Waugh
Screenplay: George Gatins
Review published March 14, 2014
Sometimes there are those movies caught between slick, commercial filmmaking and knowingly cheesy, Corman-esque b-movie madness -- a dead zone where they stagnate between wanting you to have a great time laughing along with it, yet striving for you take moments of drama seriously. It's the zone where the worst Hollywood movies are made.
Also in the zone where bad movies are made are just about every video-game adaptation ever attempted, as the origin of Need for Speed comes from what happens to be the best-selling racing game series of all time. The game features a great deal of high-performance cars to choose from, which can be customized and tuned to specifications determined by the player. One of the differentiating qualities of the series as compared to other racing games comes through the racing in many of the Need for Speed titles being done on public streets, sometimes with police in hot pursuit. This film incorporates many of these elements, but the way this is contrived, while it might work as a basic premise for a fun game on your home console, completely falls apart when trying to adapt to any sort of real-world scenario.
Need for Speed stars "Breaking Bad"'s Aaron Paul (MI3, K-Pax) as high-performance racer extraordinaire Tobey Marshall, who owns a garage in Mt. Kisco, New York, which he keeps funded by entering into highly contested and very dangerous street races for much-needed cash. After another victory, Tobey and his crew are visited by a former rival behind the wheel and in love, Dino Brewster (Captain America: The First Avenger, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), who makes them an offer they can't afford to refuse, to fix up a special Mustang Shelby potentially worth millions. However, old habits die hard, and once their partnership is over, they find themselves itching to challenge one another in a race for all the marbles -- a challenge which ends up having tragic results. Vowing revenge for getting caught up in a manslaughter sentence, Tobey is determined to strike back at Brewster by besting him in the most esteemed race on the underground racing circuit run by the Monarch (Keaton, RoboCop), the De Leon.
At the very least, one can't exactly accuse Need for Speed for not delivering the goods. Hot cars, amazing stunts, quick-cut editing, vehicular carnage, and macho posturing are exactly what's called for, and exactly what's delivered. Unlike, say, the Fast & Furious movies, the franchise to which this draws obvious comparisons, Need for Speed will gain many a movie gear-head's respect for using practical effects in the stunt work, rather than the rampant CGI-infused ones we typically see these days, which makes the scenes of racing crackle with an extra kick of excitement. It also takes it back to the original intent, which is purely to race, instead of getting tied up in thriller subplots and heist scenarios. Much of this is thanks to director Scott Waugh's (Act of Valor) background as a veteran stunt man and coordinator, though he is a bit handcuffed in delivering excitement when there aren't any characters behind the wheel.
Unfortunately, just about everything that's not on the checklist of requirements is about as poor as can be. The plot is absolutely laughable, the characters are barely defined beyond what any moment calls for, and, at two hours and ten minutes in length, it is at least thirty minutes too long for a film that has this thin a premise. Scenes involving police officers rank among the worst of the bunch, especially when they are given any manner of dialogue. It's as if this entire script were written by someone who has never left his house to see how real people converse, only emulating interactions as dictated by viewing low-budget car chase flicks for inspiration.
While Aaron Paul is a good actor in most respects, he does lack a certain gravitas that typical action-movie leading men need to carry a film beyond just as an exercise in music video-style thrills. Nevertheless, he does brood like a budding antihero, so there's that going for him. He is given a romantic interest, Julia (Poots, That Awkward Moment), but, save for one kiss, she's more of a sidekick used to service the plot when needed rather than a lover. Downgrading our ability to effectively root for them as heroes is their propensity to put the lives of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of innocent people in danger with their need to drive very fast on busy streets, sometimes going the wrong way. At no time does Julia look to Tobey and scream about how crazy he is that he almost kills just about everyone on the road with his unnecessary hot-dog antics. It is only through dumb luck that pedestrians and drivers of other vehicles don't meet a grisly demise, and not through Tobey and the other road maniacs making any sort of deliberate effort to avoid them. If not for the psychopathic drivers wishing not to scratch their own ultra-fine vehicles, the streets would likely run red.
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is a wash, with an especially puzzling inclusion of Michael Keaton, whose scenes look as though they have been shot in one day, perhaps shoehorned in after primary shooting had wrapped in order to give the cast a modicum of star power, and to make the audience for this sort of film feel even dumber for needing a play-by-play account of every plot point they're witnessing on the screen. He very clearly is acting for a different sort of film, taking it as some sort of broad comedy that necessitates an over-the-top performance, but it never blends with the tempo of the rest of the film.
If all you're looking for going in is great stunt work, brightly lit, gorgeously shot vistas, sleek and stunning cars, and punchy race montages, this outing gives you that. If you're looking for more, you won't find it in this high-performance, higher-stupidity action vehicle. Need for Speed may require the need for aspirin by the time it gets to the too-long-in-coming finish line.
©2014 Vince Leo