Need For Speed
dir. Scott Waugh
Release Date: Mar 14, 14
A well-made car movie usually features one of two things. It could be a Bullitt or a French Connection, a great film on its own that happens to involve cars at a prominent and memorable point. Or it’s a Vanishing Point, a film so steeped in the mythology of the American male in a formidable muscle car that everything about its aesthetics bleed patriotic colors and the scent of gasoline. Need For Speed is neither of those movies. It’s far too self-serious to stop and have any fun, and it’s so far beyond preposterous that only those able to suspend their disbelief to the greatest possible extents could take it even the slightest bit seriously.
Because this is a movie about loose cannons who don’t play by society’s driving rules, Need For Speed starts off with long, expository informational dumps about Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), the once-proud son of a racing family who “fell through the cracks,” cracks that led right to the high-octane world of street racing. Immediately following this, Tobey enjoys some banter with his crew at a drive-in theater almost exclusively populated by half-clothed ingenues, to establish (in order) that Tobey is kingshit of their group, that Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) is the group’s sworn enemy after selling out for big-league racing and leaving their town behind, that this group of tight-knit ruffians are bros of the highest caliber, that Benny (Scott Mescudi) is only in the movie because films like this tend to always have a sassy ethnic sidekick, and that none of these guys have any regard for women in the slightest.
After Dino sets off a chain of rapidly escalating tragedies that see Tobey wrongfully incarcerated, it would appear that Tobey’s driving career is over and he’ll have to struggle to make ends meet. Instead of indulging wild reveries of Tobey glancing sideways at an RV, though, there’s a lot about the De Leon, a yearly street race only entered by the best illegal drivers working and bankrolled by Monarch (Michael Keaton), an affluent enigma who apparently has cameras everywhere in America and spends his days watching Cleavon Little’s turn as Super Soul in Vanishing Point for diction cues. (The phrase “scenery chewing” doesn’t even come close to describing Keaton’s oddly Jim Carrey-esque turn here.) Tobey has just a few days to get across the country, and is gifted a car by an old acquaintance, with the hitch that Julia (Imogen Poots) has to tag along. Learned lessons, phoned-in banter and multiple shots of people screaming in agony in slow motions follow.
For a film so lengthy and so heavily plotted, Need For Speed never feels like any more than what it is. To a lesser extent, it’s a gigantic commercial; whether it’s for EA’s long-running game franchise or the new Ford Mustang could perhaps be debated, but it’s a big ball of brand-optimized product placement all the same. More frequently, though, the film feels like it was assembled with a riveting trailer in mind, and then all those other scenes that make up a movie were tacked on after the fact. Despite Poots’ best efforts to infuse a little bit of life into Julia (most of that being how magnetic she is as a screen presence in even the weakest vehicles), her liveliness and vigor are treated as a constant annoyance for the fun-loving group of criminal degenerates around which the film is centered when the shots aren’t focusing on Ford insignia. Sadder, though, is Paul’s coming-out party as a leading man. The man who was once Jesse Pinkman is given less than nothing to do other than inhabit space as the most generic cutout of a tortured antihero imaginable. He tries to glower and posture, and it comes off completely false.
But then, some may argue that to criticize plot and performance is to mistake Need For Speed for more than it is. Fine, I’ll play ball; I’m the guy who goes to bat for things like White House Down on a regular basis. On top of being leaden in its storytelling and indifferent in its execution, Need For Speed is also just a bad car movie. Since the film is structured as one big cross-country run in the vein of Smokey and the Bandit, the possibilities for death-defying setpieces along interstate highways and through small farm towns are practically endless. Instead of mining this to any notable degree, though, director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) shoots the film so that the auspices of excitement and adrenaline are on full display without the film ever really inducing it. There are endless trick shots (some lifted straight from the source video games), helicopter shots, close-ups of furrowed eyebrows and speedometers, and more than a few gratuitous mashups of collisions, but it ends up amounting to little more than an overlong montage of loud noises. In these times, when the gearhead porn action flick has fallen out of fashion without the words “fast” and “furious” in the title, it deserved a better revival than Need For Speed.