Review: ‘Need for Speed’ Is the Old School Michael Bay Movie You Didn’t Know You Wanted

By March 12, 2014
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The mantra of Vin Diesel’s Fast & Furious character Dominic Toretto is simplistically macho: “Ride or die.” Need for Speed‘s Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) doesn’t have a catchphrase. His philosophy’s a bit more contrived. “Ride…if the circumstances involve money or vengeance, but fully expect someone participating, possibly a good friend, to die.” Like its keystone, Dreamworks’ adaptation of the popular Electronic Arts video game is all but incoherent while delivering everything we’ve come to expect from a 21st century racing movie. Now that Fast & Furious has gone the way of the superhero blockbusters, Need for Speed rides alongside as a ridiculous spectacle of practical, vehicular mayhem.

After watching his surrogate little brother perish in a Koenigsegg Agera inferno, mechanic and part-time street racer Tobey Marshall vows revenge against Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), professional douchebag and the man who drove him off the road. But first, the rage-filled driver has a jail sentence to fulfill, the result of a wrong-place-wrong-time setup by Dino that only adds fuel to Tobey’s fire. Two years and lot of stewing later, Tobey springs into action. His plan: Audition his way into the DeLeon, the deadliest (and most profitable) street race in America and take down Dino the same way Dino took down his friend – on the road.

NEED FOR SPEED

Directed by Scott Waugh (Act of Valor), Need for Speed is surprisingly faithful to its pixelated source material. The accelerated car chases zip through real locations — sometimes on the streets, sometimes through parking lots and gas stations, sometimes swerving through incoming traffic. Like the game, we’re often kicked back into Tobey’s POV, a digital speedometer escalating as he puts foot to pedal. There’s an intact reality. If a race goes down or a chase breaks out, police pursue as best they can. Damage is devastating. When a car hits a the wrong bump, veering too close to another roadster’s bumper, chaos reigns. There’s even a “car select” scene, tickling the fancy of the hardcore gamer sect. Waugh’s action is physical, taciturn, and geographically coherent. Set pieces soak up adrenaline like a sponge. Fast & Furious may be considered the pinnacle of modern automotive action, but then again, they were the only game in town.

The screenplay by first-time writer George Gatins can’t match Waugh’s horsepower. The surrounding story is tepid and overstuffed — Need for Speed clocks in at 130 minutes and justifies about half that. When Tobey strolls out of prison, he immediately reconnects with his Pep Boys: His tag team of tinkerers Joe and Finn (Ramon Rodriguez and Short Term 12‘s Rami Malek), Benny (Kid Cudi), an expert aviator and Tobey’s bird’s-eye view, and Julia (Imogen Poots), the proxy for a billionaire car junkie who loans Tobey a 2014 Mustang GT. Julia rides as the passenger in Tobey’s road trip from upstate New York to San Francisco, the Bonnie to his Clyde as they dodge high-speed law enforcement, Dino’s hit-men, and the law-abiding citizens of the United States who thought they were taking Route 1 all the way to their family vacation. Think again, slowpokes.

It’s either casting gold or Waugh’s unexpected thoughtfulness for actors that injects Need for Speed with necessary chemistry. The script is drivel, a patchwork of redemptive sports drama tropes, inspirational Top Gun one-liners, and clips from Motor Trend magazine. In-your-face moments between Dino and Tobey feel like two fifth graders trying to out-touch each other thanks to dialogue written at that reading level. But Team Tobey can banter their way through the rough patches; Benny routinely spits out jokes for jokes’ sake, but Cudi lands them. Poots is one of the more magnetic young female leads working today and again, dabbling in car talk and racing reaction shots, she’s glowing. We actually want her to end up with the leading man because they’re equals. And in an unexpectedly exhilarating scene where the muscle car fraternity fuels Tobey’s car mid-drive, Need for Speed upshifts into an ensemble movie. If only the rest of the film had the same spirit.

NEED FOR SPEED

Hot off “Breaking Bad,” Paul keeps the rickety custom job together. He displays the versatility of a young Harrison Ford or Nic Cage (a compliment, for those who forget Con Air). Even when he’s muttering lightweight threats or mushy romantic jargon, the actor has power and a sharp sense of humor. Few actors know the capabilities of their face as well as Paul; he can ask a question, toll a bell, mount an attack, sarcastically belittle another, or drown in over his head all with his eyes and an agape mouth. He’s brutal, even when stuck behind the wheel of a car. Paul is the leading man that can sell Tobey skidding from the horizon into a close-up — totally impossible without the magic of blocking and stunt coordinators. A classic hero, the only reason Need for Speed works.

Weighed down by a trunk full of dumb bricks, Need for Speed‘s action arrives a mile a minute in hopes you’ll forget the endless exposition and half-baked character work that surrounds it. Cooper is a lifeless villain, and scant scenes of Michael Keaton as a morning radio vlogger named Monarch, orchestrator of the DeLeon, are both a tease and baffling in their irrelevancy. Tobey’s plans are cockamamie, and no one wants to be asking “why?” when a Mustang is ramping itself off the edge of a canyon cliff with the help of an Apache helicopter. For real. Waugh deserves applause for the carnage conceived and executed by his fleet of hot rods. If only we cared about where they were going.

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Matt Patches
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter living in New York City. His work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Film.com, Hollywood.com, MTV, and he is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room. He continues to love Groundhog Day.