Need for Speed (United States, 2014)March 16, 2014
Okay, no one anticipated that Need for Speed, the motion picture interpretation of the popular (and addictive) series of video games, would resemble Shakespeare. There was, however, a reasonable expectation that some of the adrenaline would transfer over, making Need for Speed a slight-but-enjoyable ride (not entirely like one of the Fast and Furious films). What no one could have envisioned, however, is what has become the reality: this movie is a complete bore. Generic car chases typically feel like time wasters and Need for Speed offers little more than a series of them strung together. Are there moments of innovation? Perhaps, but they’re few and far between. I can’t claim that this movie presented anything I hadn’t seen before. Director Scott Waugh’s intention may have been to elevate my pulse, but the only thing at which he succeeded was getting me to check my watch repeatedly.
I suppose one could argue that the real headliners are the cars. Certainly, the human beings appearing in Need for Speed are photographed less lovingly and developed with less precision than their automotive co-stars. Nevertheless, I suspect we’re intended to sympathize with the man with the most screen time. That would be Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), a street racer who doesn’t seem to give a shit about the people he inconveniences until his protégé, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), dies in a race. Tobey goes to jail while the dastardly villain behind the incident, Dino (Dominic Cooper), worms his way out of trouble with a fake alibi. After doing his time, Tobey emerges from behind bars with one goal: avenge Pete. That means getting even with Dino. Not by punching him in the face or blowing his brains out but by beating him in an underground race called "The DeLeon." To do that, he has to travel from New York to San Francisco in 48 hours with an insanely hot British blond (Imogen Poots) riding shotgun. There’s a bounty on him so all sorts of cars and trucks try to run him off the road. Then, upon reaching his destination, he must enter The DeLeon and go head-to-head against his rival.
In choosing his first major post-Breaking Bad role, Aaron Paul has remarked that he was attracted to the “lightness” of the script. Vapidity might be a better word choice. Paul’s performance is robotic; the part doesn’t demand much and he doesn’t provide more than what’s needed. Imogen Poots is delightful but that’s about the only claim that can be made about her. She never evolves beyond the sidekick/love interest stereotype. Michael Keaton’s wtf off-kilter portrayal injects some wacky energy into the proceedings but he never interacts with anyone else. Dominic Cooper tries his best to be a weasel but he’s not quite despicable enough. Maybe someone in makeup should have given him a mustache to twirl.
I will admit to a built-in bias against this movie. I have nothing against the game or racing movies in general but I find it distasteful to glamorize a “sport” that results in countless injuries and deaths each year. Street racing isn’t a form of youthful exuberance; it’s dangerous both to participants and, more importantly, to innocent people who inadvertently end up in harm's way. Need for Speed pays lip service to this with Pete’s demise but it’s clearly not invested in furthering the message. There’s a lot of carnage late in the film that the movie justifies by blaming it all on the bad guy. The “consequences” are a joke. There are some things that can’t be excused by saying, “It’s just a movie.”
If there’s one thing to be claimed in favor of Need for Speed, it’s that the car stunts are done without the aid of CGI. The refreshingly retro look favored by stunt coordinator-turned-director Waugh gives weight to the chases, races, and crashes, although the editing could have been better. However, just as the underwritten and safe screenwriting fails to serve the actors so the generic choreography fails the cars. Need for Speed is the latest in a long line of game-turned-movies where the viewer would be better off staying at home, turning on the console, and playing with his joystick rather than making a trip to a theater.
Need for Speed (United States, 2014)
Cast: Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Dakota Johnson, Michael Keaton
Screenplay: George Gatins, based on a story by George Gatins & John Gatins
Cinematography: Shane Hurlbut
Music: Nathan Furst
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures