Launched in 1994 on PlayStation, Need for Speed the video game was praised as the most realistic racing simulators at the time. As one of the most successful game franchises ever created, the series would spawn 19 sequels over the next two decades, and now a live-action movie. Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Max Payne, Doom, and Silent Hill have all been given the Hollywood treatment, with little to no success. Suffices to say, Need for Speed does not raise the bar for video game movie adaptations.
Despite the game franchise not having a set story mode until 2003 with Need for Speed: Underground, screenwriter George Gatins took it upon himself to create an original narrative without having to lean on preexisting material. Need for Speed follows Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), a run-of-the-mill, auto mechanic nice guy with a knack for illegal street racing – daddy issues are assumed, but no real back story is defined. He uses his race winnings to pay off debts accumulated by his shop because apparently no one wants to have their car tuned up by the best racer in town.
Like all video game protagonists, Tobey has a rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a spoiled rich boy sociopath who must win at all costs – he also has the Tobester’s ex-girlfriend Anita (Dakota Johnson) wrapped around his fingers to establish top tier bad guy status. She proves to be a worthless character anyways until one significant plot convenience and Cooper struggles to grow Dino beyond the stereotypical villain role, lacking any dimension and zero charisma.
Dino strolls into town one day looking to hire Tobey to build a Mustang. They eventually end up racing each
other to prove who has the larger penis so Dino can prove his mega star status isn’t a fluke. This of course entices Tobey’s wide-eyed, ADHD BFF Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertons) to want to get in on the action, which you know won’t end well. Doing what any rival would do in the face of near defeat, Dino knocks into Little Pete’s car causing it to burst into flames mid-air. Racing away from the scene of the crime, Dino leaves Tobey behind who is picked up by the cops and held accountable for the unintentional murder of his friend.
Released on parole two years later, Tobey seeks revenge, recruiting his ragtag group of friends – Joe (Ramón Rodriguez), Benny (Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi), and Finn (Rami Malek), a colorful bunch who provide comedic relief and come in handy when the story requires them to be – as well as a cheeky-British gal with a wealth of car knowledge named Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), whom he helped build the Mustang for. Poots is the most lively of the cast, creating great chemistry with Paul as they bounce off each other very well. You definitely feel their camaraderie build as the two get to know each other while they are chased by the cops or flee from other drivers because Dino issues a bounty to stop Tobey from reaching Dino.
Together they all must drive across the country to San Francicso in two days time in hopes they can gain the attention of Monarch (Michael Keaton), the organizer of the most illustrious, invitation only underground street racing competition, the DeLeon. Tobey believes that if he qualifies for the DeLeon and wins he will somehow prove his innocence to the world – if that makes any sense at all. Keaton chews up every scene with absolute flair and a wonderfully silly, caricature of a performance. Never interacting with a single cast member, I can only imagine Keaton letting loose on set by his lonesome.
This plot summary is reflective of how much time the film takes to establish conflict. Even with two race scenes before Tobey is arrested, the first act is so draining and prolonged that everything becomes completely uninteresting. And you may think that Aaron Paul will save you because he’s Jesse from Breaking Bad, but Need for Speed doesn’t have the writing team of Vince Gilligan and pals to make Tobey a fully fleshed out and fun character. Thankfully Paul gives a decent enough performance through repetitive scenes of angst to make Tobey’s cause seem believable for this movie. But still, the plot is so linear and thin that everything is paint by numbers for director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor).
But thanks to Waugh’s insights as a former stunt performer/coordinator, Need for Speed pulls off some of the most brain racking practical effects stunts. That’s right, every car chase, crash, and race is performed with real stunt drivers without the use of CGI. With how incredible of a feat that may be, and how sexy the cars are, what is presented on screen is not very compelling due to lousy editing. Scenes cut back and forth between the streets and low angle shots of the driver from within the cars sporadically making a lot of the action hard to follow at times. Setting up practical stunts takes money and time, so I’m sure they had limited funds to shoot scenes multiple times and had to use what they had. The cinematography, shot by Shane Hurlbut (Terminator: Salvation; Semi-Pro; Act of Valor), is also very sub par. The movie captures none of the stylish or slick appeal the video game has.
What also makes Need for Speed frustrating is that all of the races are given very poor direction to understand where our drivers need to be at the end of each sequence. Rush is simple, the drivers go in circles, and in Fast & Furious movies they explain their plans and exit strategies ahead of time. This disregard of set up places the viewer in an awkward position because the driving feels like it drags on forever without a sense of urgency which hurts the tension in the scenes. Luckily some suspense is built up with police chases and various obstacles that stand in the way of the drivers.
Need for Speed could have easily been called anything because it has little to do with the game other than the racing. In that regard you could call it a success because it doesn’t tarnish the game’s reputation. However, as a movie, Need for Speed fails to deliver much value for the overly long run time, weak characters, and linear plot. Moviegoers hoping to see a sleek, finely polished Fast & Furious knock off will surely be disappointed by its spastic editing and gritty cinematography.
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Need for Speed releases on Friday, March 14, 2014. It was directed by Scott Waugh, with a run time of 130 minutes. This film has been rated PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language.
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