“Need for Speed,” the latest popcorn release based on a video game, is not the worst movie I’ve ever seen… but it’s close (that honor would have to go to “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie”). In an effort at full disclosure, I must admit that I am not a 13 year old boy, clearly the market for this latest endeavor. “Need for Speed,” the game, has been one of the most successful game franchises ever released, first appearing in 1994. Although this is definitely not my demographic, I am fully capable of understanding the thrill and adrenaline rush involved in controlling the joystick and racing cars around curves, evading those in pursuit and crashing big time without ever leaving the couch. Playing this generation of video games is a visceral experience as only an adrenaline rush without real-world consequences can be. The best games have stories placing the player in the role of hero, or in the case of quasi illegal activities, the anti-hero. You create the story; the story is you. And therein lies the problem and the biggest mountain to climb, although in most cases it’s more of a mole hill.
DreamWorks, Touchstone and EA, to name only three of the production companies involved, knew they already had brand recognition. The marketing divisions of those companies must have salivated at the prospect of bringing in a huge audience of adolescent boys attracted by the title alone. After all, movies can no longer be produced without the approval of the marketers because if they can’t sell it, they won’t make it. Plus, Hollywood has been trying to eliminate the writer for years and with “Need for Speed,” it would appear that they have, despite writing credit allocated to George and John Gatnis.
The story of “Need for Speed” is simplistic, at best, which in itself is not a problem. The ending is pre-ordained to the extent that even an 8 year old knows who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy and how everything will end.
Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a crack mechanic and legendary street racer touted by no less an authority than the shadowy underground DJ Monarch (Michael Keaton) who sponsors the ultimate winner-take-all street race every year. Tobey has inherited his father’s auto shop and works with his best friends Benny, Finn, Joe and Little Pete. Little do they know that Tobey is mired in debt and about to lose the shop unless he can get his hands on a huge pile of cash. Such a stash comes his way in a business proposition offered by his very rich nemesis Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Suffice it to say that Tobey ends up with the short end of the stick when Dino, a villain missing only a black hat and long twirly mustache, cheats and sets Tobey up for a fall in a street race where Dino forces Little Pete off the road, killing him. Dino successfully disappears, leaving Tobey holding the bag, or rather the car so to speak, and sending him to prison for a couple of years for manslaughter.
Released from prison, Tobey must find his way back to sanity and solvency which, of course, means he must ruin Dino and vindicate his name and reputation. He is given that opportunity by a cute girl who demands to come along for the ride. Tobey must overcome the bounty Dino has placed on his head and the destruction of his car to win the race and prove that Dino was guilty of causing Little Pete’s death. Guess who wins?
The thrill of this movie will reside in the hundreds of spectacular car crashes, all caused by illegal street racing in juiced up cars going way too fast and the wrong way on heavily populated city streets. Although thoroughly ignored in the film, these car crashes resulted in the deaths of innocent bystanders and the destruction of millions of dollars in public property, no doubt something every pre-adolescent has dreamed of doing. Easy to forget in the excitement of the car races is that while Dino, rat that he is, is fully responsible for driving Little Pete off the road to his death and should have gone to prison with Tobey, not instead of Tobey, as both were participating in an illegal race and both had responsibility for the circumstances under which Little Pete died. But I suppose that is grasping at straws or highlighting technicalities that are of little concern when the issue at hand is speed, something that can be found in abundance.
Unfortunately story is not the only problem. The acting is abysmal even by video game standards. Aaron Paul, trying hard to channel James Dean should have tried harder to channel Aaron Paul. The lack of emotion, the dead gravelly voice and the lumbering demeanor disengage the audience from the get-go. Poor Dominic Cooper makes you wonder how he could have gone from playing three dimensional, conflicted characters in “My Week with Marilyn,” “An Education” and even “Captain America” to Dino. Michael Keaton’s role as Monarch can only be described as creepy and expositional filling in details that the voice over narration neglects. Playing an enigmatic rich guy who sponsors the ultimate street race is only interesting if there’s an actual mystery to uncover. There is no there there. As for Imogene Poots as the girl… she’s pretty but this is one I’d keep off the CV. There was, however, one bright note lost among the dissonance and that was Scott Mesccudi as Tobey’s friend Benny, a young man with a penchant for stealing vehicles that fly in the air rather than on the ground. He brought much needed humor to an otherwise humorless film.
Directors often times take full credit for films even when such credit should be doled out to the many other creative on the team. This is one of those cases where director Scott Waugh deserves full blame as every element over which he presided and had final say is downright awful. Congratulations to Scott on a well-deserved “film by” credit. A former stunt coordinator, Scott is definitely no Hal Needham, a director who followed the same path and while his films, such as “Smokey and the Bandit” and the “Cannon Ball Run” series were not works of art, they were decidedly entertaining.
“Need for Speed” will, in an unfair world, probably open to strong numbers but it seems unlikely that word-of-mouth will be good as even the spectacular car crashes had a by-the-numbers look. Caveat Emptor! This is time you’re never going to get back, but then again, the audience for this movie isn’t reading this review.