Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: "Need for Speed"

I like video games and I like cars and I like car racing video games and I certainly like movies, but I did not care for this movie based on a car racing video game.

The problem with "Need for Speed" is that it's a goofy flick with aspirations of being A Serious Drama, and those things don't really mix well. Much like the dreariest parts of the "Fast and Furious" franchise, whenever the characters aren't zipping around in souped-up machines, crashing and taunting each other, the movie gets stuck in neutral.

It is, in fact, much like a muscle car sitting in one place revving its engine very loudly: it seems kinda cool at first and certainly draws a lot of attention, but after a short time we get itchy to see the thing, y'know, go.

Aaron Paul, best known as the "bitch" guy from TV's "Breaking Bad," hasn't had much of a movie career -- though he had a strong supporting part in the indie drama "Smashed" from not long ago. He's got serious thespian chops, but this movie -- directed by Scott Waugh ("Act of Valor") with a screenplay by rookie George Gatins -- requires him to deliver a lot of ridiculous dialogue and smoldering stares that don't seem to have a whole heaping helping of intellect behind them.

I'm not saying Tobey Marshall is dumb, but he certainly acts pretty dumb.

Tobey runs a performance car shop in tiny Mount Kisco, New York (though Georgia and its ferocious film production tax credits stand in). His dad has recently died, the shop isn't doing well, but he's got an amiable crew of mechanics/best buds (Ramon Rodriguez, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson) to help pass the time.

They contrive to set up elaborate street racing events, including a guy monitoring traffic from a Cessna in the sky, though the cops are seemingly nowhere to be found. Tobey is the top dog on this little circuit, but he's never had a car good enough to make it to the Big Time, where here is defined as an annual underground race of supercars called the Deleon.

This race is organized by a secretive billionaire named Monarch (Michael Keaton), who reputedly was once a great racer himself but a bad ticker made him quit. Now he sits in a room full of tech gear, delivering daily vodcasts in which he encourages and/or rags on drivers, with an exclusive invite to the Deleon as catnip. Apparently, every single gearhead in the country tunes into Monarch, though law enforcement has not yet paid him any notice. Strange, that.

Here's where things get screwy. The prize for the winner of the Deleon is he gets to keep all the other racers' cars. Of course, if you've every actually played the Need for Speed games or seen any car movie ever, you know that most of the vehicles end up as smoking roadkill.

(Maybe Monarch got so rich because he never has to put up any prize money, and his only major expenses are Web hosting fees.)

The heavy is Dominic Cooper as Dino Brewster, a teen rival of Tobey's who stole his girl (Dakota Johnson) and made it out of their dink town to race on the Indy circuit, which of course begs the question of why he bothers with illegal street races that likely pay a small fraction of his legitimate racing income.

Whatever. Cooper is an appropriately sneering, contemptuous presence.

The Deleon actually ends up as largely an afterthought, as most of the film's running time is concerned with the initial face-off between Tobey and Dino, during which Very Bad Things happen, and then Tobey's race to drive across country in time to make it for Monarch's little to-do in California. The "race before the race" has all sorts of roadway encounters, including incompetent cops, murderous rednecks in trucks and a rescue off the end of a cliff that is just completely preposterous.

Imogen Poots plays Julia, a British car expert who tags along with Tobey for reasons that are never made entirely clear, other than just to have an adorable chick around. The movie's third main star is a special silver Ford Mustang, supposedly the car Carroll Shelby was working on with Ford before he died, which Tobey and his crew finish into a 234-mile-per-hour beast.

Of course, driving a custom-built car 3,000 miles across country at high speeds is a really great way to mess up the engine right before a big race, but "Need for Speed" is not the sort of movie to bother with verisimilitude. The 'Stang is pretty awesome, though I thought the '68 Gran Torino Tobey drives in the initial race even cooler.

The racing sequences are the best thing about the movie, as Waugh & Co. eschew over-the-top computer generated mayhem for practical car stunts, which give these scenes a certain amount of verve and heft.

The talkie parts, though, are so cumbersome, and eat up an astonishing portion of the film's overlong 140-minute run time.

At one point, Tobey and Dino finally have a face-off inside a hotel prior to their race, which involves lots of shoving and grappling and strained threats. "We'll settle this behind the wheel!" Tobey snarls, because that's where every car movie ends. All things considered, though, a punch in the nose would have been quicker, safer and more satisfying.


1 comment:

  1. To its credit Need For Speed does differentiate itself pretty well from the Fast and Furious movies. The latter actually borrowed heavily from NFS Underground but this movie uses real cars even in the crashes and big stunts to look more visceral.