PLOT: A mechanic, framed for a crime he didn’t commit by his rival, vows to avenge a friend’s death and defeat his enemy at a secret multi-million dollar car race.
REVIEW: Car fetishists and appreciators of extremely loud noises will surely get their rocks off during NEED FOR SPEED, the film adaptation of the EA video from the director of ACT OF VALOR. (I think “film adaptation of the EA video game from the director of ACT OF VALOR” is really all you need to know, but I’ll go on.) Overflowing with brooding machismo and shiny automobiles, the movie strives to be no more than an acceptable FAST AND FURIOUS substitute, though perhaps the hope of kickstarting a franchise is in the back of its dopey head somewhere. I don’t see that happening, but there is a chance it spawns another entry in the popular NEED FOR SPEED video game series, one that will be undoubtedly better constructed than this messy thing.
The movie’s lone attribute is the fact it has Aaron Paul in the lead, presumably the launching pad for his career as a movie star. (He’s been in films before, of course, but this is the first major post-Breaking Bad role.) Paul, with his husky voice and easy charisma, is a perfect bad boy hero for this kind of movie; just as likely to reveal his heart of gold as he is to seethe and glower. But there’s no question he’s better than the material, and though he must have seen this as a project capable of exposing him to a wider audience, it most definitely feels like he’s slumming it.
The film’s plot, such as it is, involves the rivalry between working class mechanic Tobey (Paul) and professional racer Dino (Dominic Cooper). Dino is like a villain in a 1980s high school movie: smug, entitled, has the pretty girl and the fast cars. Tobey’s a good kid, living in the shadow of his father, struggling to pay his bills and keep open the shop he and his friends have opened. But of course he’s the best driver around (perhaps in the entire world?), which gets under the skin of Dino, what with his massive inferiority complex. In between bouts of staring menacingly at one another, Dino accidentally kills a friend of Tobey’s in a race, then flees the scene of the crime, leaving Tobey to take the blame and the jail time.
Two years later (might as well be about two hours), Tobey is out of the clink and looking for some playback. He gets the gang back together and conspires to clear his name, while also beating Dino in a super secret race held by a hyperactive racing enthusiast known as Monarch (Michael Keaton in a way over-the-top performance). Needing a car, he reaches out to pretty Julia (Imogen Poots), who he met and charmed years earlier and who has access to a souped up Ford Mustang. She’s plucky and game for anything (plus, shocker, she’s a girl and knows about cars!) and ends up accompanying him on a cross-country pursuit to enter the race and have a fateful showdown with Dino.
The weird thing about NEED FOR SPEED’s storyline is that most of the movie is simply getting to the race. Tobey and Julia, joined by Tobey’s gang of colorful co-workers, have to make it from New York to California in about two days, just in order to qualify for the “big” race. The actual race itself is only in the last 20 minutes or so, which is completely anti-climactic. Hence, much of what we see is filler, as the group avoids cops and one close call with some bad dudes looking to drive them off the road at the behest of an anxious Dino; this little subplot is absolutely hilarious and ludicrous in equal measure.
Our heroes drive, it should be said, like maniacs; in crowded streets, on highways, on roads – anywhere they go, they create carnage. It’s probably going to make me sound like a grouchy old man, but their sheer disregard for anyone other than themselves makes them kind of hard to root for. When civilian cars are being smashed and crunched, you start thinking perhaps it would be a very, very good thing if these people were stopped and arrested. Hilariously, the studio has put a “don’t try these stunts” disclaimer towards the end of the final credits, as if the movie’s target audience will still be in the theater at that point. Perhaps if the goal seemed more noble, you could forgive all the pile-ups, as this is obviously just fantasy, but the movie’s intent on making these guys appear cool and remorseless in their wanton destruction is kind of creepy.
No one expected director Scott Waugh to be capable of Oscar clip material (heavy-handed or corny are the movie’s two primary modes), but his choreography of the action is shaky as well. He relies on odd angles of the races to give them some distinct flavor, but often the racing is disorienting, and his confounding depictions of the car crashes (of which there are many) are jumbled wrecks, not unlike the cars themselves after they’ve flipped over a few hundred times. I can’t let him off the hook completely, but in his defense he’s not working with anything close to an exceptional story; NEED FOR SPEED has the emotional range of a pre-teen, and while I know it’s too much to expect serious intrigue or depth in a living, breathing video game, there’s an amazing lack of effort put into this script. Chris Morgan‘s FAST AND FURIOUS screenplays might as well have been penned by David Mamet when compared to what writers George and John Gatins have created here. (John Gatins was nominated for an Oscar only a few years ago for his FLIGHT script. What happened?) The film’s (unintentionally?) best line comes from Keaton: “My inbox is white hot!” Make of that what you will.
Obviously NEED FOR SPEED was not for me, and I really don’t believe it will be for most. It’s brash, irritating and tiresome – and 130 minutes long, an inexcusable length for a movie of such meager ambition. At around the 90 minute mark I realized the film’s third act hadn’t even started yet, which was very troubling indeed. For a movie that supposedly thrives on adrenaline, NEED FOR SPEED is maddeningly plodding, taking forever to get where it wants to go.