I have never played the Need for Speed video game. I’m more of a Gran Turismo guy, but to be honest, racing’s just not my thing. Sure, I appreciate automotive aesthetics, possibly more than many others. And the technology is pretty cool, even if it’s only the advancement of the century-old idea that explosive force can be converted into linear motion.
Every once in a while, I like to go too fast, but not like that: I guess I feel more of a mild attraction for speed. And that’s pretty much how I felt going into a screening of this movie – my expectations weren’t high, but I hoped the cast would add a little spice to a worn-out premise, and they certainly did. The screenwriters and director did a fine job, too. Need for Speed isn’t all that bad as racing flicks go.
To provide some background, there are 23 Need for Speed video games. That epic gaming line started back in 1994, and the creators of the big screen version had a lot of expectations with which to deal.
Fortunately, they didn’t worry about that much. Instead scriptwriter George Gatins (with story help from John Gatins) focused on the characters and (get this) story. Before and during production the main players spent a good amount of time together, developing a casual familiarity that binds them on screen. Director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) and the producers made some good choices, such as avoiding digital effects in favor of what’s now called “practical effects.” They also gave audiences a backstory that almost counts for something while placing focus on a tight, character-driven tale.
I’m not much of an action movie fan; I prefer actual story to simple setup followed by a series of explosions. Need for Speed tries to bridge the gap between action and drama, and while there’s no award-winning storytelling here, there is enough to elicit engagement with its characters.
It goes like this: Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame) is a driver/mechanic from a blue-collar background. He had a shot at racing’s big leagues and the girl of his dreams, Anita (Dakota Johnson), but lost both to Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), the local boy made good. Dino ran in some big circle races and now deals in high-end autos. When Dino and Anita come back from the big city tensions rise, even though Dino’s got a deal that will save Tobey’s garage, which is under threat of immediate foreclosure.
With no choice, Tobey takes the deal, and he and his grease monkeys – Joe (Ramón Rodríguez), Benny (Scott Mescudi), Finn (Rami Malek) and Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) – finish the build-out on an American automotive unicorn: the last Mustang developed by Carroll Shelby.
Things go sour soon after, though, when a prospective buyer (Imogen Poots) wants to see what speed that Mustang will do – you’ll have to see the film to learn the details, except that (surprise, surprise) there’s some racing and a man called the Monarch (Michael Keaton) involved in the high-octane mix.
Readers of this review will no doubt realize that in this kind of flick Tobey and Dino will be head-to-head as the approach the finish line. They both live and redemption occurs – no surprises there.
What is a surprise is Tobey’s noble and half-assed honor code that you don’t leave a crashed racer behind. But drivers are left behind in Need for Speed, and that’s the movie’s great flaw, though for many action-seeking cinema punters that may not matter much. Worse yet, Tobey and others endanger the lives of cops, common motorists, and a bus full of kids along the way. That’s honor? That’s the racer’s code? Respect for one life in a million doesn’t count for much in my book.
Still, Need for Speed makes good use of its brilliant cast, roars along with the pace of a V-16, and is built to satisfy every gearhead and race fan in America. The cars are awesome, and the races are amazing (ridiculous and so fast your eyes will bleed). It’s all shot with solid camera work (credit DP Shane Hurlbutand) and excellent pacing. There’s just enough of the roadside camera to give you that video game race recap feel without being too hokey or static. The cockpit cinematography is exceptional, and the crashes will give you whiplash, especially in 3D.
But between that 3D and the protagonist’s so-called “honor,” the movie sinks away from the great action film category right back to the decent shelf. There’s also a time-waster segment in the middle with gun-toting mercenaries that undoes the precision shown to that point in Gatins’ screenplay.
(Listen up, producers and movie-goers alike: 3D still doesn’t work right. It’s still blurry, it can still be ruined by seating offsets and it sure as hell isn’t best used in two-shots to pop out the back of someone’s head. That’s not visual integration, it’s just annoying. The shattering glass is pretty cool, though.)
The homages to classic car movies in Need for Speed are stronger points. We could’ve done with more of those and less of the random acts of violence injected into the story. And there’s always room for more Imogen Poots.
Need for Speed (www.theneedforspeedmovie.com) opens nationally in wide release today (March 14) in 3D, RealD and other large formats. For locations and show times in the Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language, 130 min. Directed by Scott Waugh; written by George Gatins, based on a story by George Gatins and John Gatins and the video game series created by Electronic Arts. Starring Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Dakota Johnson, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramón Rodríguez and Michael Keaton.