Hollywood is desperate for ideas and willing to look anywhere—other than, you know, to actual screenwriters. So, in the fine tradition of Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, Double Dragon, House of the Dead, Silent Hill and Doom, comes Hollywood’s latest video game-inspired action feature, Need For Speed.
The film is based on the popular Electronic Arts series of the same name (20 games and counting since 1994). In the original games, players race exotic sports cars and ... Nope, that’s pretty much all there is to it. They just race sports cars. It’s easy to see why Hollywood would be clamoring to mine such a story-rich franchise. Fingers crossed, video game fans, that a feature based on EA’s Madden NFL or FIFA World Cup isn’t far behind.
Despite lacking any real foundation, Need For Speed tries hard to build itself a niche amid the 100-vehicle pileup that is the Hollywood car chase movie. The film borrows most of its plot from 1971’s legendary cult film Vanishing Point. But it’s clear that the filmmakers at least ran other genre classics like Smokey and the Bandit, Two-Lane Blacktop and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry through their DVD players before they started production. So kudos at least for that. Need For Speed isn’t as meatheadedly cartoonish as the Fast & Furious films (a series this film obviously dreams of passing in the fast lane). It doesn’t feature quite as many egregious violations of basic laws of physics. But that doesn’t mean it’s any more realistic.
Former Bryan Cranston sidekick Aaron Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, a skilled car customizer and street racer whose dad was a legendary NASCAR mechanic. Too hotheaded (or rebellious or whatever) to make it in the big time, Tobey is stuck in the crumbling industrial backwater of Mt. Kisco in upstate New York. There he drag races at the local drive-in, fends off creditors and hangs out with his Abercrombie & Fitch-inspired gang of gearheads (let’s call them Wide-Eyed Kid, Toothpick Guy, Young Ray Liotta and Rapper-Turned-Actor Kid Cudi).
One day Tobey’s arch-rival, sexypants stock car legend Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper, hot off the BBC’s “Fleming” miniseries), drifts back into town. Dino has stolen not only Tobey’s professional thunder, but his old high-school girlfriend (Dakota Johnson) as well. Despite warnings from Toothpick Guy and others, Tobey gets sucked into a multimillion dollar business deal with Dino. The deal ends up with Tobey both screwed out of his cash and locked in jail for two years.
Flash-forward to present day. Tobey gets out of jail and immediately sets his sights on that backstabbing snake-in-the-grass Dino. Our boy’s got just 45 hours to find a car and get it to California where Dino is competing in a mysterious underground road race known as the Deleon. So how precisely will beating Dino in a race exact revenge while simultaneously exposing the fact that Tobey was falsely accused of a crime? Eh, Need For Speed will work out those details later.
Most of the movie consists of Tobey and his unwelcome copilot (a cute, blonde car-nut played by the still-improbably named Imogen Poots) racing across America with the cops in hot pursuit. As if that weren’t enough incentive to drive a custom Shelby Mustang as recklessly as humanly possible, nasty Dino offers up a million-dollar bounty to anyone willing to send our hero careening off the highway. Massive car crashes, high-flying freeway jumps and flagrant violations of the speed limit ensue.
Need For Speed hits all the expected beats, delivering plot twists that will shock exactly no one. It does, at least, keep the pedal to the metal, moving at a breakneck pace and leaving viewers little time to contemplate the epic implausibility of it all. (Like, why would you drive a $2.7 million car 45 hours across the US, smashing though police barricades and jumping off mountaintops the whole time, in order to then enter it in a race?) To no one’s surprise, Tobey and the British seat-warmer make it to California just in time to compete in the legendary Deleon alongside Dino. The race is sponsored by reclusive millionaire car freak “The Monarch” (Michael Keaton), a fast-talking weirdo who apparently spends all day vlogging about automobiles from his living room. He becomes the film’s de facto narrator, telling us lots of patently obvious things like what state our characters are in and whose car just passed whom. The winner of The Monarch’s secret race gets to keep all the other insanely expensive European sports cars in the race—which sounds like a good deal until you see what happens to those losing cars. Then, it’s really not worth the effort. Upon reflection the whole cost-benefit analysis of this film is seriously out of whack. In the opening sequence alone, our main characters employ millions of dollars worth of high-tech equipment to win a $5,000 street race.
Then again it’s unlikely anyone will be coming to this video game-inspired flick for its stellar logic. The racing sequences are distractingly propulsive, and the stunts look mostly practical (as opposed to CGI). Those are certainly points in its favor. Paul proves he’s got potential as a leading man—although this “strong silent type” role hardly requires much heavy lifting. There’s some silly comedy relief (thanks largely to Rapper-Turned-Actor Kid Cudi) and a faint hint of romance (the guy-on-girl type, not the guy-on-car type—of which there is plenty). If only the cliché-crunching script didn’t offer up such thin excuses to drive really, really fast. Unless you’re some insane car fetishist for whom the words “Lamborghini Sesto Elemento” cause immediate drooling, you probably don’t need to race to the theater for this one.
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