So I guess there's a video game called "Need for Speed" that in at least some versions involves driving across the country, not unlike the plot of the new film version, made by former stuntman and ACT OF VALOR director Scott Waugh. Much as he did with ACT OF VALOR, Waugh has emphasized authenticity. In his military movie, he used real members of the military. And in a film that recalls quite frequently the great muscle car films of the 1960s and '70s, the new film features no computer-enhanced stunt work, instead allowing real cars to race at top speeds, often wrecking spectacularly. And anyone who thinks it doesn't make a difference is fooling themselves. The stunts in NEED FOR SPEED look and feel undeniably dangerous.
Granted, a film featuring grown men sitting around revving their engines as loud as they can, as well as a sequence involving a character forced to take an office job suddenly strip naked and walk outside in just his socks clearly isn't emphasizing character development, but anything would have helped make me care about these gear heads. I never quite understood why guys who race cars in movies also have to prove they they can beat another driver up, or why any of the drivers or mechanics insist on constantly measuring each other's penises to see whose has the most horsepower. There's a whole lot of posing in NEED FOR SPEED, and it borders on distracting.
The film opens in an unnecessarily complicated fashion with struggling garage owner and sometime-racer Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul, from "Breaking Bad" and SMASHED) accepting a major job from his former friend and famous NASCAR driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Tobey's shop is having a tough time financially, and he needs the money, so he and his team, played by Scott Mescudi (aka Rapper Kid Cudi), Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez and Harrison Gilbertson as Little Pete, the younger brother of Tobey's ex and Dino's current love interest Anita (Dakota Johnson, soon to be seen as the female lead in 50 SHADES OF GREY), take the job.
But after Tobey delivers and tests the car, Dino challenges him to race illegal (in America) cars on open roads; Little Pete hops in one of the sleek machines as well, and before long tragedy strikes, thanks to Dino bumping Pete's car. Tobey gets the blame; somehow not a single car that they pass can even confirm there were three cars racing let alone Dino in one of them; and Tobey goes to jail for two years for manslaughter.
When he gets out, Tobey formulates a plan for revenge against Dino (which includes a bit of professional humiliation) and gathers his team to find the right car to drive across the country to beat Dino in the highly respected underground race, the De Leon. When Dino finds out Tobey is coming, he puts a bounty on his head, leading to a cross-country journey becomes a long-ass chase with bounty hunters on Tobey's ass most of the way. Joining Tobey in his car is Julia Bonet (Imogen Poots), who represents the actual owner of Tobey's very expensive car and has been charged with driving as his passenger for the whole ride.
Since the De Leon race is illegal, there aren't sportscasters doing the play-by-play and color commentary. Instead, we get Michael Keaton as the reclusive former driver and web series host Monarch, who has no scenes with the other actors, but is holed up with his broadcast equipment giving details of a race he can't even see. The level of detail he can assess just from his computer is just plain stupid and impossible, but lately, any movie with Keaton in it is often better than one without.
As I said, the racing scenes and other stunts are second to none, the crashes hurt too much to even contemplate, and the driver's seat POV shots give a real sense of both the origins of the NEED FOR SPEED material and just how fast these vehicles are going. Even some of the more outrageous stunts (including a helicopter lifting a moving car off the ground using wires) are amusing in the way crazy stunts just are. But the minute the characters start talking to each other, all of my good will toward the film began to drain out of my head.
Aaron Paul does the best he can to add a little weight to his single-minded, empty-headed character, but he ends up looking like exactly what he is—a great actor trying to save a dopey film. Faring slightly better is Poots as Julia, who at least has the courtesy to not play the helpless girl screaming from the passenger seat. Naturally, the two bicker in the beginning, but once that subsides, things between them get more tolerable for us.
The most frustrating part of NEED FOR SPEED is that it wouldn't have taken much more effort to make it something worth recommending. Screenwriter George Gatins (who shares a story credit with more famous writer brother John Gatins of FLIGHT and REAL STEEL fame) just doesn't have an ear for diglogue or a real idea about pacing this overlong (well past the two-hour mark) piece, which is a shame because the other tools at his disposal are exceptional. With so little to work with in terms of script, I think Waugh does a fairly admirable job pulling together some great muscle car moments that don't quite reach the heights of the FAST & FURIOUS films (thank goodness), but still make us long to get behind the wheel of a classic Gran Torino and get it up past 200 mph.
With the exception of Poots and Keaton, the supporting players don't add much to this story, and Cooper's character is so bad, all he needed was an eyepatch and a goatee to make sure there was no doubt as to his intentions. The final De Leon race sequence is lengthy (in a good way) and surprisingly brutal as car after car is eliminated from the event via some supremely nasty crashes. But by then, you've likely given up caring who wins, loses or dies as NEED FOR SPEED careens to its inevitable conclusion.
As strange as it may sound, I actually think a sequel for this film might work better than this one simply because we could hopefully dispose with some of the introductory elements and concentrate on impressive action sequences. You may not want to hold your breath for that, but this NEED FOR SPEED runs out of gas early on and waits until the end to refill. That's not how you win a race.