Movies based on video games haven’t had the greatest run of success, neither financially (outside of the Resident Evil series, for some reason) nor critically. Can a film based on a series of games which mostly revolves around expensive cars driving fast (discounting a couple of them that have the most perfunctory of stories, all terrible) change any of this. Can Need for Speed go the distance?
The story revolves around Aaron Paul’s mechanic/expert racer character, Tobey Marshall, being released from prison and getting revenge on Dominic Cooper’s Dino Brewster (surprisingly not the worst name in the film), a professional driver, for causing the death of one of Paul’s friends/employee, the so-impossibly-angelic-that-him-dying-comes-to-literally-no-ones’-surprise Pete (Harrison Gilbertson). What this entails is borrowing a 900 horsepower Ford Mustang that Paul had previously built and driving it across the United States, along with the car’s caretaker Julia Maddon (played by the impossibly charming and English, Imogen Poots) to enter an illegal, high stakes race put on by an eccentric millionaire, The Monarch, in the form a sunglasses wearing, soul patch sporting Michael Keaton (taking a paycheck for sitting in a room and talking about how racing is an art but racing with passion is high art).
You’d think that relatively simple conceit would be in place quickly and the film would be a tight 90 minutes of exciting car chases and sweet revenge. But it isn’t. Not even close, there’s no photo finish here. The final thing clocks in at over two hours long and it doesn’t even have a plot for the first forty minutes (you could argue that it doesn’t really for the remaining 90 too). In fact that write-up makes it sound like a halfway decent story but in the details its pretty awful and in no way sensical. It’s more accurately described as a collection of scenes that have terrible, illogical connective tissue. Thinking about anything for more than a second brings up a myriad of questions that the film never answers or addresses, including but not limited to: Why did he do that, why was he there, why was that there, why did that happen, how didn’t anyone die there, where are cops, why do the cops only show up when the script needs them to, why do these cars have any trouble outrunning the cops and, finally, why am I watching all of this?
The issue is also very much one of tone. It could’ve been a fun romp, a Smokey and the Bandit style cross-country caper, but it frequently, if not almost constantly, goes for serious drama. Aaron Paul mostly broods, with his head perpetually tilted forward, and gravel voices his way through scenes. ‘Cause intense or something. Either way he’s so much better than the material and direction allow him to be, which means that here he mostly looks like he’s going to cry at any moment if he’s not being the most awesome driver in the universe because reasons. Imogen Poots is probably the highlight, bringing a welcome lightness and almost sense of joy to some of the proceedings. The back and forth between her and Paul is actually kind of enjoyable at times, when they’re not suffocated by the abhorrent screenwriting.
There’s a very clear problem, or several at that, with our protagonist.There’s not much of a reason to root for him or against Dominic Cooper’s antagonist for the opening third. There are references to some sort of vague “lockerroom beef” between them but no clear cut explanation to why Cooper is supposedly such a bad guy. That is of course until he does something so preposterously ridiculous and borderline cartoonishly evil, all for no real, logical reason. There’s literally not a single sensible reason for him to do anything that he does. In the end we have to amount it to a battle of inflated egos, a high speed dick waving contest without regard for anyone’s well being. Because, you see, these people are all sociopaths with blatant disregard for others’ safety for their own enjoyment. How can you expect anyone to root for that kind of “hero”? Especially when he’s dull and uninteresting.
Just to round it out, the film also gets humor woefully wrong. The prime example, an this ties into the whole concept of thinking about things for a nanosecond, is a scene where they pick up Rami Malek’s Finn, an extra special amazing car setup guy, from his desk job in Detroit (because jumping parole, braking several federal laws and grievously endangering the lives of several people is much more noble endeavour than work). After a few revs of the Mustang’s engine (yes, large swaths of the film feel like an extended commercial for Ford) he decides to come along, but not before he exposes himself in front of everyone at the office and forcibly kisses a woman, a delightful combo of indecent exposure and sexual harassment. Hilarious!
So no, Need for Speed can’t finish the race, in fact it pretty much stalls on the grid in spectacularly dumb but not enjoyable fashion. It’s definitely a step up for director Scott Waugh, but when your previous film (Act of Valor) was a steaming pile of cinematic garbage you need a leap, not a step to make something even halfway decent. There’s pretty much no reason to see this film, even though it has some nicely shot practical car sequences and beefy sound editing. Neither end up effective as there’s no tension, excitement, fun or involvement to anything, and you will not care, about anything. Ultimately a waste of some good talent and audiences’ time.
The Good: The cast itself is good even though the performances are not; occasionally the comradery between Paul and Poots; the use of practical effects and inventive cinematography in car sequences.
The Bad: Everything else.
The Ugly: The drivers’ posture, sitting that leaned forward will kill you when the airbag eventually blows up in your face at that speed. Physics, bitch!