Need for Speed is both better than any racing video game adaptation really has any right to be and yet it’s still what most audience members who buy a ticket for it will be expecting. It’s a loud, brash, somewhat silly throwback to simpler times. It’s a delightfully old school thrill ride made with the kind of brazen disregard for life, limb, and plot that Roger Corman would appreciate with the kind of set up that purists of 60s and 70s chase flicks would appreciate. It ain’t much, but it doesn’t need to be. While some of the cars on display might be rocket fuelled, this still ain’t rocket science.
Upstate New York mechanic Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) has almost bottomless potential as a racer, yet he never drives professionally, instead trying to hang onto his deceased father’s auto repair shop that’s on the verge of foreclosure. To make some extra cash to save the shop, Tobey and his friends take a job restoring a Shelby Mustang for Dino (Dominic Cooper), a professional driver, scumbag, and guy who stole Tobey’s girlfriend from him. Once the job is finished and the car is sold to a wealthy businessman, a disagreement between Tobey and Dino leads to a drag race that turns deadly for one of Tobey’s best friends. Framed for manslaughter because Dino left the scene, Tobey begins a mission of non-violent vengeance, looking to beat Dino at his own game by entering a highly lucrative and astoundingly illegal San Francisco area rally race run by an enigmatic and insane rich guy (Michael Keaton). Tobey asks permission to use the Mustang and rallies his old crew – along with the owner’s investment advisor (Imogen Poots) – to make it across the country in three days to get to the race while Dino puts a bounty on his head.
It seems like I described more plot than there actually is, but that one paragraph sums up every word of it. Man goes from point a to point b to complete objective c. Pretty simple stuff and a fine delivery device for director and former stuntman Scott Waugh’s particular set of skills. Never turning to CGI for help, the crashes, near misses, and high speed mayhem is the real deal. Cars crash in line with the rules of physics. They generally can’t do things that are physically impossible, although I’m quite skeptical about a bit involving hooking a car up to a helicopter just as it’s going over a cliff. It looks dangerous, but it looks like the actors are driving and that the cars are perfectly under control. In many ways, it keeps everything that makes the Fast and the Furious films enjoyable in terms of action sequences and strips the irony and implausibility from them. Forget that the actual STORY of Need for Speed could never happen and that it has no sense of its own timeline; at least credit has to be given to trying to bring back practical stuntwork and effects. Waugh certainly never skimps on that, filming every sequence from so many angles it will likely make heads spin and somehow making it all look neat and coherent.
I suppose I could be hard on the story and writing in Need for Speed, but considering it is one of those films that’s designed to be a product, a potential franchise starter, and it’s based on a video game series with no plot whatsoever, it falls in line with being exactly what I thought it would be. There isn’t a single person who hears the title Need for Speed or who has seen the trailer for the film that could be swayed or dissuaded by my argument. Still, buried within the threadbare plot is a classical kind of quiet renegade out for revenge tale that’s as quaint as it is timeless. It’s not a bad thing, especially since it seems to want to desperately be the biggest hit of 35 years ago than the highest grossing movie of 2014.
From the opening sequence at a neon bathed drive-in theatre hosting a car show and the film’s unabashed Bullitt and Vanishing Point inspired climax, Waugh is clearly crafting just as much of a love letter to the American muscle car as he showed a love for the American military in Act of Valor. This is a much better film that that one, though, and the tone is a lot less self serious. It’s playful, but respectful to the films that came before it. It’s also pretty darn lunkheaded at times, but Waugh never plays his audience for dummies. He has made a film that he knows he’s proud of, and it has the air of something that someone shares with their friends instead of that of a major studio product. There’s something undeniably charming about that.
Just as charming is the cast, led by Paul and Poots who seem to be having a blast channelling their inner hard headed badasses. Paul takes the work here very seriously and provides the necessary straight man to the lunacy often unfolding around him. It’s not a groundbreaking performance, and maybe not the thing he should be doing right after Breaking Bad since he just seems to be following marching orders here, but it shows he can carry a film on his own. As for Poots, I have rarely seen someone with such a thinly layered character get this much mileage out of disapproving looks, one-liners, and by subverting her male co-stars every step of the way. She’s almost trolling the movie, but that seems entirely the point.
Dominic Cooper is sufficiently sleazy, but he might be overplaying it. The character seems to be written more like a coward than a moustache twirling criminal mastermind, and too often it feels like Cooper’s impulses to go big and broad are being reigned in. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, however, is Keaton who goes so far off the page NASA has officially named him an honorary planet. It’s great to see Keaton go full on crazy in his sequences as a high tech hermit (hilariously described at one point as being rich because “his parents hit it big during the industrial revolution”). He’s positively Shakespearian in his line delivery that has to spell out the film’s subtext in the most flowery of ways. He’s also thankfully in just enough of the movie to keep nudging it back to life every time there’s a lull in chases or things seem to be slowing down.
The only major problem is that the film is ultimately too long. (Although, I should add that I saw the film at a very early screening before it got a post-converted 3-D tricking out. I don’t think it should really have it or that it needs it. The old school effects seem made for 2-D, so stick with that if you can.) At 130 minutes, there’s at least ten that can be chopped of the film’s 30 minute set-up that leaves no plot for the rest of the film, and one lengthy chase through the desert feels suspiciously tacked on because it comes at a point where there hadn’t been an action sequence for a while. Also, while it’s nice to show that Tobey has a loyal group of friends willing to help them, only Scott Mescudi (a.k.a. Kid Cudi) playing Tobey’s pilot friend, feels at all relevant with the rest of his crew slowing down the film around them.
Still, at least with the long running time, there’s something genuine about Need for Speed that most action films lack these days. I like my actions films that can have a wink and a nod, but I also appreciate the ones that simply aim to entertain without trying too hard to be cool or post-ironic. There’s a time and a place for those movies, and while we’ve seen plenty of those in recent years, there’s easily room for something like this as well.