Action Adaptation

High-Octane Film Review: Need for Speed

March 14, 2014Ben MK

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From 'Breaking Bad' to breaking the speed limit

By Ben Mk

Maverick and Goose summed it up perfectly when they so eloquently declared, "I feel the need ... the need for speed!" That line may be cheesy now (and it may even have been cheesy back in 1986), but it still resonates with moviegoers. We just love fast things — and in the movies, that usually translates to fast cars. But before the Fast and the Furious franchise became a mega-hit, there was a whole other breed of car-culture film, epitomized by movies like 1968's Bullitt and 1974's Gone in 60 Seconds. No special effects — just real stunts with real vehicles. And it's something that director Scott Waugh's Need for Speed is attempting to bring back, in a big way.

Of course, Need for Speed isn't built around a quote from Top Gun (although there are some in-film references to it, believe it or not), but rather on Electronic Arts' long-running hit racing videogame franchise, which is all about hot pursuits, spectacular takedowns and being the first to the finish line, with little else plot-wise to speak of. The set-up of the film version has a bit more meat on its bones, and it revolves around Tobey Marshall (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul), a mechanic/street racer from Kisco, New York, and his rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Once childhood competitors, Dino has graduated to the professional racing circuit, leaving Tobey in the dust to run his late father's auto shop, Marshall Performance Motors. But times are tough for Tobey, and he has to resort to competing in illegal street races just to earn enough cash to pay off the shop's loan payments. On the night of one such race, Dino returns to Kisco with an offer that could alleviate Tobey's money problems — upwards of a quarter of two million dollars, in exchange for some help in restoring a very special Shelby Mustang. But it ends up being a deal with the Devil, when Dino leaves Tobey to take the fall for a street race turned deadly, resulting in his incarceration.

When he's finally released on parole two long years later, Tobey has but two things on his mind: revenge and redemption. And the only way to achieve both is by winning an exclusive, invitation-only street race called the DeLeon (a nod to EA's Need for Speed: The Run), run by the Monarch (Michael Keaton). The only thing standing in Tobey's way is the reality of his situation: that neither has he secured a spot in the race, nor does he have a car to race with — he only knows that the DeLeon is being held somewhere in San Francisco, on the other side of the country, and that he has forty-five hours to get there. So he'll need the help of car afficionado Julia (Imogen Poots), his friends, Benny (Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi), Finn (Rami Malek) and Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), and a very special Shelby Mustang. But the race to get to the race is just the beginning. Tobey will also have to contend with Dino, who's already claimed his position at the starting line and who'll go to any lengths to stop his rival, including putting a bounty on his head.

To address the elephant in the room: film adaptations based on videogames have a less-than-illustrious history — but if we're being completely honest, a lot of them are flat out terrible. In between the two extremes of being a slave to the original property and reimagining it radically differently, Need for Speed falls somewhere in the middle. There are times when the racing sequences evolve out of the narrative, moving with the ebb and flow of the storytelling, but there are also instances where it feels disjoint from the plot. All told, the film doesn't quite carry the dramatic heft that some of the performances are meant to convey, but it's far from being another Super Mario Bros. Even though the script has its cookie-cutter moments, the cast does an admirable job of selling the story with both emotion and humor, thanks to the charming back-and-forth dynamic between leads Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots — which keeps their scenes in the Shelby entertaining, even when they're not engaging in vehicular mayhem on their cross-country road trip — and the comic relief provided by pals Mescudi, Malek and Rodriguez. But ultimately, these are all merely diversions from the film's real focus, which is firmly on the driving. And in this respect, Need for Speed delivers on its promise of authenticity in spades.

With the variety of exotic(ally named) supercars that turn up from scene to scene — such as the Bugatti Veyron, GTA Spano, Koenigsegg Agera, Lamborghini Sesto Elemento and McLaren P1 — car enthusiasts won't be left wanting for eye candy to drool over. But it's how these cars — most of which are also featured in the latest instalment of the game franchise — are put to use in the film that truly attests to the filmmakers' dedication to authenticity. Keeping with the tradition of classic car-culture films, as well as more recent films like Ronin and Jack Reacher, Need for Speed boasts genuine racing and genuine stunts — a welcome departure from the current trend in modern filmmaking, to augment everything with computer graphics. And although this approach translates to keeping the insanity quotient of the stunts to a (practical) minimum (meaning that the vehicular antics are nowhere near as spectacular as some of the set pieces in the Fast and the Furious films), it only makes the driving that we see on-screen all the more impressive.

The Bottom Line

Is Need for Speed the perfect videogame movie? Not quite, although it's definitely an above average adaptation, bolstered by a talented cast that helps it drift to the finish line with ease. But its strong suit is really its portrayal of the adrenaline-fueled world of supercharged street racing. And with its emphasis on practical stunt work, there's really nothing else out there like it at the moment. Even Maverick and Goose would be proud. [★★★½]

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