by Callum Petch
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: yes, Need For Speed is the best non-animated videogame-to-movie adaptation that has been made and released at this moment in time. Admittedly, when your competition for that prestigious crown includes Street Fighter: The Movie, DOA: Dead or Alive, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Bloodrayne, Postal, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Super Mario Bros., Bloodrayne 2: Deliverance, Hitman, two movies based on The House of the Dead, The King of Fighters, both Tomb Raider flicks, both Silent Hill films (although the first one had bags of unrealised potential), Tekken and Bloodrayne: The Third Reich; that’s not exactly saying much. Nevertheless, it is true. Need For Speed is the best non-animated videogame-to-movie adaptation given a Western release yet (take your time Ace Attorney, we’re in no rush, really).
Here’s something else about Need For Speed: it’s a complete and total mess. Throughout the course of its 2 hours and 10 minutes (yes, you did read that correctly, Need For Speed has a run time of 2 hours and 10 minutes), the film wildly careens from tone to tone, through different corresponding levels of self-awareness, through its many plot points, with its cycling of characters, going through every level of “Aaron Paul is/is not interested in this movie”, from explaining away everything to just throwing its arms up in the air and going “I dunno! This is just a thing that happens, don’t question it!” I haven’t met a film this schizophrenic about its own nature and what exactly it wants to be in a long while. And yet, I’m honestly not too hung up on that fact because it’s also kinda a lot of fun. Both intentionally and unintentionally.
But we shall get to that. The formalities, first. Aaron Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, a down-on-his-luck mechanic who street races on the side to pay the bills. Falling behind on the payments for his recently deceased father’s garage, he and his crew (consisting of Ramón Rodriguez, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek and Harrison Gilbertson) agree to fix up a Ford Mustang for an old acquaintance of Tobey’s, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). They don’t get along. A lot of stuff then happens between that and what sets up the main plot: one of Tobey’s crew gets killed in a street racing accident (and you’ll figure out exactly who within the first 65 seconds, he may as well wear a glowing neon shirt that reads “HELLO, I AM GOING TO BE THE SACRIFICIAL LAMB FOR THIS FILM”), Tobey is framed for it, spends the next two years in jail and, once released, begins his quest for vengeance by…
I don’t really know, in all honesty. His plan seems to be to hitch it across the country in time to enter a supposedly super-secret and possibly illegal race called the Something Stupid & Pretentious Or Other (they keep mentioning it but it kept slipping my mind, I know that it completely seriously involves d’-something) and beat Dino in it but the film never outright says. Maybe we’re just supposed to think up what Tobey’s going to do to Dino ourselves or maybe the film just couldn’t decide for itself. I’m leaning towards the last one thanks to the ending. In fact, here’s something you must know about Need For Speed: the ending is unfulfilling and kinda garbage. There are more loose threads here than a linen shop run by the world’s worst sewer and it aims to be happy and uplifting without actually providing any reason to be happy or uplifted. If the ending makes or breaks a movie for you, then Need For Speed is likely to become your new least favourite film of 2014. Only 300: Rise of an Empire wraps up worse in regards to films released in the last six months.
Honestly, though, a messy and unsatisfying ending is rather fitting considering the two hours that precede it. See, Need For Speed is dumb. It is super dumb. It has a character on Tobey’s team who seems to have access to helicopters at will. It’s a movie in which Michael Keaton plays the one man who seems to have power over all of the illegal street-racing in the country, who live streams about illegal street-racing on a seeming 24/7 basis whilst taking calls from viewers and listeners and whose identity is a total mystery… despite the fact that he can set up prestigious races and his face is constantly on display so you’d think at least somebody would have run a facial or voice recognition software on him and shut his ass down by now. It’s a movie that sort of romanticises the concept of illegal street-racing (which would be controversial had movies not glamorised a lot worse and had one other major action series not already built its foundation on rooting for the crazed street-racers). It is dumber than a lobotomised Big Brother contestant. This is constant.
What’s not so constant is the movie’s attitude towards that dumbness. Its self-awareness level fluctuates like crazy; one moment it’s completely in on the joke, the next it’s trying to abuse super slow motion for emotionally devastating effect (key word: attempts), the next it’s somewhere in the middle. At the film’s midpoint, Dino effectively, no wait, he actually does put out a hit on Tobey and it’s played completely straight with no police interference whatsoever (seriously, the way that illegal street racing runs in this movie’s universe is quite literally the dumbest thing I have had the good fortune to experience in… man, I can’t even remember). Near the end, a character currently held in military prison successfully convinces the guard watching him to get him an iPad so he can watch the final race and plays that for silly comedy. One of Tobey’s crew, after the two year time skip, is reintroduced in a scene where he takes off all of his clothes in the middle of his work environment as he quits. It should tell you a lot about this film that that was the scene that I the most baffled about.
Let me put this another way. Do you remember the first trailer for this film? The one where Aaron Paul monologues about vengeance over operatic wailing and you sit and wonder whether everyone involved is actually aware of just how ridiculous the thing that’s currently playing out before your eyeballs is? Yeah? OK, take that feeling and apply it to 2 hours and 10 minutes because that’s Need For Speed. It feels like seven different movies being very awkwardly smushed together into one product and, quite honestly, it defies logic, common sense or any sort of coherent opinion. I guarantee that you will leave the cinema in bafflement at the film you will have paid money to witness. My brain is turning to glue trying to make sense of this film. It really is.
Oh, and the score! What in blue blazes was going on with the score of this film? Did the guy writing it think he was writing it for some kind of inspirational Oscar bait? Maybe an inspirational biopic about some important person’s life? Because that’s the score we’ve got for this film and it’s the most mismatched score for a film I’ve seen since smooth heist jazz music backed Haywire. Turns out setting the first trailer to opera was the marketers secretly trying to prepare us for the abject weirdness of the score to this movie. There’s even the single strangest inclusion and interpretation of All Along the Watchtower I have seen since Battlestar Galactica! Was anybody actually communicating with one another during the creation of this movie?!
So, it’s insane and the ending is utter crap. Why am I advising you to go and see this again? Besides so that, when you inevitably bring it up for your next bad movie night, you can smugly go “I saw this one in cinemas” towards all your buddies (I guarantee that this will become legendary on that kind of circuit in the coming years). Simple: I had a lot of fun with this one. I’ve seen a lot of films recently, good and bad, and most of them have either been really serious or really boring (and sometimes both). There’s nothing wrong with serious movies, but sometimes I want to sit and watch something fun. I want to laugh, I want to be excited, I want to be having a good time. 300: Rise of an Empire didn’t provide that, Non-Stop didn’t really provide that (because that wasn’t its intention for a lot of it), A New York Winter’s Tale should have been the kind of bad movie to provide that and it clearly wasn’t. Need For Speed, though, provides fun. It provides a lot of fun and whether that fun is intentional or unintentional changes by the minute but, in all honesty, is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
It helps that it has style oozing throughout. Director Scott Waugh (whose previous claim to fame was the excretable and similarly muddled Act of Valor, so at least this is a step up for him) often shoots chases or races with cameras that are supposed to be POV shots of the drivers, with CGd Heads Up Displays and checks around the cockpit, like it’s a cockpit view mode in a videogame. He likes to attach his camera to various aspects of the expensive cars as they drive or crash. He especially enjoys seeing just how close his vehicles can get to the moving camera at very high speeds before they have to overtake. It adds a flair to proceedings, makes the chase scenes feel alive and fresh even though nothing particularly new is happening in them.
On that note: none of the stunts in this film are performed with CGI. Everything is achieved with practical effects. Every crash, nudge, last-second near miss or spin is done with practical effects and really good stunt drivers. So, no, do not expect to see any new or outrageous feats of automobile havoc out of Need For Speed. Do, however, expect to be reminded of just how amazing and amazingly tense a good practical car chase sequence looks and is. There’s an early section involving a race through traffic with three Koenigseggs that was nail-biting because I was sat there the entire time thinking “Wait, no, this can’t actually be real. They can’t afford to even risk scratching the paintwork on one of those-OH GOD, NOW TOBEY’S IN ONCOMING TRAFFIC!!” It sounds slightly sociopathic and sadist but it’s true: people become tenser and more involved in risky activities when there’s a chance that it can go horribly wrong for those involved, and that works gangbusters here.
Every collision, hell, every scrape, be it from one of the main characters or just some unlucky civilians, carries real impact from collisions being mundane, infrequent and done with practical effects (ie: actually crashing or rolling them). And this is not even mentioning the final race which I would not be surprised to discover was just an excuse to smash some of the world’s most expensive and gorgeous cars up real good. I could practically see the money burning away in front of my eyes. Frankly, thanks to modern action films’ total embracing of CGI to enhance any and all action scenes, I had forgotten just how great a good-old-fashioned practical setpiece can be and I’d love for this film to be the start of a return to that end of the scale, rather than it be a one-off.
There is one other reason why Need For Speed gets a pass from me, despite it being utterly confoundingly stupid, and that reason is Imogen Poots as Julia, the woman who tags along with Tobey on his cross-country drive for… reasons (I’d like my brain to still retain some of its functions, so I’m just going to stop thinking about the plot side, now). See, in a rare turn-up for the books of almost every action movie ever, Julia Maddon is a great female character. Yes, she’s a badass driver, but that’s secondary to everything else about her and is revealed long after you get to know her. And, yes, she’s introduced by having the boys make fun of the fact that she’s a woman and so obviously is ill-suited to their world of cars and fast, reckless driving, but the film quickly shuts down that line of thought as an unacceptable one too (whether or not the film briefly brings that thought back up sympathetically for a “terrify the passenger to death” sequence is down to personal interpretation, quite frankly).
Instead, she’s a character. Not one with much of a backstory, granted, but she has personality. A deep and consistent personality, one that doesn’t just revolve around Tobey every second of the film. She’s manic, charming, snarky, strong-willed, capable behind the wheel, quick-witted (if not so great at following through with her plans) but also petrified of heights, not as accustomed to extremely reckless driving as Tobey and prone to doing silly things when panicked. She feels rounded and grounded, an actual, three-dimensional character in a film that didn’t need one. Credit should also be handed to Imogen Poots who gives it everything she’s got, seemingly also completely amazed at being given a well-written female character in an action film, in this action film of all sodding places, to play and determined to make the most of it.
In fact, I’m going to go ahead and call it, right now. Action films made post-2000: this is now your new minimum gold standard when it comes to female characters. She may not be Ripley, but Julia Maddon still kicks the arse of pretty much every female character you’ve come up with for the past decade and a half. Need For Speed did this. A movie based on NEED FOR GODDAMN SPEED DID THIS! Are you seriously trying to tell me that a movie based on the Need For Speed franchise can outdo your female action characters? Are you going to let that stand?
It also helps, to be fair, that Imogen Poots seems to be the only person capable of getting Aaron Paul to be consistently alright, striking up a nice easy-going chemistry with him. Whether it’s due to nerves at this being his first big leading movie role or just not giving a single crap, Aaron Paul is not very good in this movie. He over or under-plays damn near every single line, seems damn near checked out during several solo sequences of him driving a car and pulls the stupidest faces during the slo-mo serious dramatic scenes (although, to be fair, those are so overwrought that his hamming them up actually improves proceedings). It’s a shame, really, and I’m hoping he finds a vehicle that he’s comfortable with or interested in or that stretches his skills soon because I’d love to see him have a leading man career. Similarly, if you’re hoping for another wonderfully hammy turn from Mr. Dominic Cooper, then prepare to be disappointed as he’s barely in it and, possibly as payback for that crime, he doesn’t really seem to be trying; underplaying every line and acting very subdued. Shame, really.
Need For Speed, then, is a giant and total mess that has no clue of what it wants to be, checked-out performances from its two leads, a stupendously baffling and incoherent plot despite its simplistic and barely-there nature and a ferociously unsatisfying ending. It’s also huge amounts of fun, a great showcase of how even the simplest car chase can be livened up with a bit of style and a liberal usage of practical effects and has the new gold standard for post-2000s female characters in action movies. In other words, what we have here, ladies and gents, is the definition of a mixed bag. We also have a film that you’re actually likely to remember 48 hours after having seen it. I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll still be thinking about Need For Speed long after this review goes up, even if it’s just to futilely try and make sense of the damn thing.
It’s got an identity. That identity is essentially a Frankenstein’s Monster of other, often better movies, but it’s got an identity. It’s also never boring and often a lot of fun which is way more than I can say for so many action films pumped out by Hollywood nowadays. I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy Need For Speed, hell I don’t even know if I actually enjoyed Need For Speed, but you’re going to have an opinion on it, either way, and you’ll probably be glad you saw it. You decide if that’s a good thing or not.