The hit videogame franchise Need for Speed comes to life as a new live-action film starring Aaron Paul. Is the movie a high-octane hit, or does it grind to a screeching halt? 411's Jeffrey Harris checks in with his official review.
Directed By: Scott Waugh Written By: George and John Gatins Runtime: 130 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language
Tobey Marshall - Aaron Paul Dino Brewster - Dominic Cooper Julia Maddon - Imogen Poots Benny - Scott Mescudi Finn - Rami Malek Joe Peck - Ramon Rodriguez Anita - Dakota Johnson Pete - Harrison Gilbertson Monarch - Michael Keaton Bill Ingram - Stevie Ray Dallimore
All things considered, the Need for Speed film is by no means a bad movie. It’s just not a particularly good one. Is the movie decently watchable as a throwaway street racing-themed action movie? Yes, it is. Are the car scenes strongly choreographed and excellently shot? Yes. Does the movie fall flat in its face by trying to make pablum grandiose? It repeatedly does so. But if you are in the mood for a fairly vapid action movie with fast cars that’s basically a blatant copy of the Fast and Furious franchise, well then Need for Speed could very well work for you.
Trying to make a movie out of the Need for Speed franchise seemed odd to me. Granted, it’s an established brand, and it’s easier for a studio to invest big money in something with preexisting name or brand attached to it. But the Need for Speed games are racing games. There isn't really any story to adapt there. I know the franchise has sort of evolved with those elements later on from what I understand, but still, it came off like an odd choice. And case in point, it’s an overall janky story that despite the overly dramatic and grandiose presentation by director Scott Waugh, who previously found success with the micro-budgeted Navy SEAL film Act of Valor, never really makes any sense.
The story follows Tobey Marshall (Paul), a mechanic from Mt. Kisco, New York with a talent for customizing cars and also driving them. Unfortunately for Tobey and his crew, Benny (Mescudi), Joe (Rodriguez), Pete (Gilbertson), and Finn (Malek), the bank is going to take away their auto shop. Tobey’s big dream is to prove his worth as a driver by racing in the Deleon, an elite, illegal street race for rich people with sick rides that is put together by an underground racing aficionado and DJ known only as the Monarch (Keaton). Young Pete’s prophetic visions foretell that his friend Tobey is destined to win the Deleon and beat Tobey’s romantic rival Dino Brewster (Cooper). You see, Dino got together with Tobey’ ex-girlfriend Anita (Johnson), also Pete's older sister, and took up shop in Manhattan. After Tobey wins a street race, Dino presents Tobey and his crew with an offer. He wants them to finish up and customize a classic Carroll Shelby Ford Mustang that he was making before he died. Brewster is looking to sell it and will give Tobey’s shop a quarter of whatever the sale price is. Tobey’s crew doesn't like Dino and doesn't want the deal, but Tobey doesn't see any other choice. Tobey helps facilitate the sale of the car to Julia Maddon (Poots), a dealer of high-end cars for the wealthy Bill Ingram (Dallimore). Despite taking the car without permission, he’s able to get the Mustang to a top speed of over 230 mph to close the sale to Maddon and Ingram.
His pride hurt after Tobey shows him up basically, Dino challenges Tobey to a winner take all race. Since this wouldn't be much of a movie if Tobey wasn't a blithering idiot and refused the cockamamie deal, he accepts the challenge. Naive young Pete does as well. After starting the race in three European concept cars, Dino looks like he blatantly bumps Pete. Pete’s car flips over a bridge and bursts into flames. Dino leaves, and Tobey is left to take the fall for Pete’s death after Dino falsifies his alibi. Two years later, Tobey gets out of jail and propositions Ingram that he will enter into the Deleon and give him all the winnings if he loans Tobey the custom Mustang. Tobey reassembles his crew to help him along with the road trip. The Deleon is in California, and Tobey has just over two days to get there from New York. Julia Maddon is assigned to escort Tobey on the trip as Ingram’s representative, since the Deleon race is not only illegal, but Tobey is violating his parole by leaving New York to go to California. Benny, being the group’s comic relief and pilot, analyzes traffic in the air and tracks their progress. Joe and Finn, after they get him out of his corporate job, handle the refueling. And Dino? Well his own high end auto dealership is failing and struggling to stay above water, so the Deleon is a chance to save his career with a white collar investor. But of course, Dino learns his old rival is back, and he puts a bounty on Tobey’s head to keep him from entering the Deleon. Oh, and the Monarch becomes aware of this with his underground pirate radio station and basically enables and seems to enjoy all of this.
Again, the plot here is extremely janky and flimsy. It relies on tons of convenient plot devices and leaps in logic that make no sense. Now granted, if you are watching this movie, you probably aren't watching it for the story. But with all that in mind, the story and dialogue are way too goofy to ignore. Tobey’s rage against Dino is fueled by this imaginary code that Dino “left” Pete to burn and die. You see to Tobey, the cardinal rule of illegal street racing that Dino never should’ve broken is by “leaving” the scene of a wreck. That’s what Tobey cannot get over, and he repeats it throughout the film. His rage over this makes no sense when you consider the fact that Dino basically murdered Pete. Based on the footage, Dino completely knew what he was doing. In fact, the movie does everything to suggest that Dino’s plan against Tobey and Pete was pre-meditated. So if Tobey should be angry at Pete, it should be because he blatantly murdered his friend, his own brother-in-law, and framed him for it. Tobey’s own code of not leaving other wrecked drivers is a joke considering other drivers get wrecked over the course of the big race, and Tobey does nothing to go back and help. Besides these issues, the movie’s third act is disappointingly anti-climactic. It builds up a certain car and it’s appearance in a way that what ultimately happens is not really fulfilling. Many elements are set up that make no sense. And things that are set up as pretty important and crucial are later ignored. The ending itself does not seem like it was intelligently earned or believable.
Now with all that in mind, the movie does look great and it’s very well shot. Waugh, who has experience as an editor for the underrated racing documentary Dust to Glory and doing stunts and second unit work on action movies, is clearly well suited and has a knack for this material. Most of the stunts and crashes all look like they were practically done. The editing and pacing are immaculate, and the racing sequences are quite exhilarating to watch onscreen. The colors aren't over-saturated like a Michael Bay film. Along with Nathan Furst’s strong score, the film is like a nostalgic throwback of films like Days of Thunder or Top Gun. It has a very traditional, conventional style that at least makes the movie look appealing. And watching in 2D, there was no pointless, darkening, inferior 3D conversion either.
In terms of performances, I didn't get much out of Aaron Paul here. I've yet to really watch Breaking Bad in full, and I’m sure he’s great there. His performance here though was very…odd. There was just something off about it. He’s just so incredibly low-key and at times bland, and then other times he turns his facial expressions up to 11, so it’s hard to really invest in his performances coupled with his bizarre priorities of justice. His crew, while they are good for a chuckle here or there, are more or less two-dimensional cookie cutter archetypes, especially Benny. I was most impressed by the work of Imogene Poots, who is actually quite charismatic and does the best with some of the story’s more inane dialogue. Most of the high points of the film generally involve her.
At the risk of sounding old fashioned and sanctimonious, there’s something troubling about the subject matter to the story as well. All these drivers and racers are amateurs at best. They are driving concept and fast cars on open public roads with seemingly little regard for other regular drivers or the safety of innocent bystanders. With all that in mind, and the general carelessness to which they take to the road, it’s bizarre that Tobey espouses that you can’t leave another driver behind at the scene of a wreck. If that’s the one cardinal rule you cannot break in illegal street racing, it’s one that Tobey and all the other drivers break frequently in the film.
The 411: All things considered, if you are in the mood for just a high-octane, racing-themed action movie, Need for Speed could very well be the ticket for you this weekend. The story and dialogue are completely goofy and at times make absolutely no sense. To some viewers, that probably doesn't matter. The movie is watchable, and Scott Waugh shoots this material very well. But the movie is quite predictable and mostly unsurprising. As a video game movie, it's not a complete failure and probably could have been a lot worse.