The Need for Speed movie is a conflicting beast to dissect. On the surface, it shares little in common with EA’s racing behemoth. But when you start counting the gaming references and niche throwbacks, maybe it embodies more of the game series’ essence than it’ll be accredited.
Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul stars in his first feature film since the hit series ended as mechanic-turned-racer Tobey Mitchell. Struggling to make the repayments on his shop, a rare opportunity presents itself when superstar-racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) returns with a rare financial opportunity. Throw Tobey’s ex Anita (Dakota Johnson) into the mix, and a couple of his racing buddies / colleagues, and tragedy ensues in the aftermath of a heated street race.
Jump head a few years, where Tobey and his crew are out to seek revenge against Dino — naturally, on the streets. Despite being on probation for past events, Tobey drives cross-country in a souped-up Ford Mustang to compete in a winner takes all face off against Dino.
As you would imagine, there are cops, crashes and incarcerations scattered through the emotional toil — sidetracked by subplots that don’t make any sense. Paul hasn’t lost any of the anger, sadness, confusion and stark realisation that defined the culmination of Jesse Pinkman, and if anything, takes holding back tears in a fit of rage way too far in Need for Speed — but he’s forced to make do with sub-par writing for the first time in half-a-dozen years.
The story borders upon preposterous, and you’ll never care about the cars or characters as much as its obvious competitor, The Fast and the Furious. Fast has the advantage of building a rapport over six instalments, but aside from Tobey, Need for Speeds’ characters struggle to generate an identity or bond with the audience; probably because none of their motives make any sense.
It’s honestly not what I was expecting. I walked into a screening last month expecting a Fast & Furious clone with exhilarating car chases, busty women and ripped men occasionally pointing guns at each other’s pretty faces. Instead, we get a flashy emotional rollercoaster, powered by regret, revenge and acceptance.
While it’s a nice change from the expected pace, Need for Speed gets confused as to if it’s trying to be an escapist haven for motoring enthusiasts, or realistic propaganda about the consequences of street racing. That’s why it only has one meaningful character, and why you’re never really sure if you should be supporting him or the cops in pursuit.
Unfortunately, the biggest reason Need for Speed becomes a one character affair is the terrible supporting cast. Paul does his best to liven up some cheesy dialogue, but he scarcely gets any help. Imogen Poots is introduced as Julia to sit beside Tobey on his two day road trip across the US, probably because the writers realised they had a serious lack of women without her, but they might as well have cast Kristen Stewart if they wanted a bland worrywart that falls for the good-guy criminal after 40 minutes. Meanwhile, Dakota Johnson was even more pointless as the ex-girlfriend/wife/whatever that ties Tobey and Dino together — who for some reason gets caught up in a ridiculous cover up side plot that’s irrelevant to the outcome and disregards the basic elements of criminal investigation.
The male support doesn’t fare any better. Kid Cudi is laughable as Tobey’s flying-spotter, making painful comic relief from a helicopter above the streets. Michael Keaton is a highlight heinously underused as the reclusive underground racing host, but clearly phoned in his lines away from the action, and I’ve actually forgotten all the other generic dudes trailing Aaron Paul — but to be fair, they didn’t have a lot to work with.
While the story is rubbish, Need for Speed shines with outrageous smashes and realistic fireballs — the amazing stunts were done for real, without CGI. This is an old school action movie, with stunning cinematography and exhilarating action. In an age drowning in green screens and computer trickery, it’s refreshing to see everything done for real from fireballs, to driving off cliffs and high-speed hairpin turns.
Couple the genuine effects with plenty of Bugattis, Lamborghinis, McLarens and a beastly Mustang, and Need for Speed is every motoring enthusiasts dream — even though it doesn’t glamorise street racing like Fast & Furious; if anything, it demonises it.
As an adaptation, Need for Speed has a surprising amount of gaming references, but only if you think about them. It’s essentially Need for Speed: On the Run fused with Hot Pursuit and Underground, as Tobey is nearly always being chased by a fleet of black and whites during the heated street races, and eventually joins the “underground” league. The climatic final race is streamed online, pointing to companion apps as a bunch of nobodies watch on tablets; I only wish online streaming was actually this good.
The camera playfully swings into a cockpit view, an angle you’d expect in a video game but never a movie, and Tobey has support from eyes in the sky telling him to veer left or take a quick right at the last second; another arcade racing trope. There is also a brief moment where Tobey’s posse is sitting around playing a racing game with DualShock 4s, but surprisingly, it looked like the screen was running a PS2 or early PS3 game instead of Need for Speed: Rivals (but we only got a quick glimpse).
Need for Speed (the movie) is a little bit confused. In trying to be different and deeply emotion, the core of a semi-believable story is derailed by preposterous motives and forgettable characters. It wouldn’t be so bad if Need for Speed was a high-octane escapist fantasy, but it gets a little too real to be considered as such, then suddenly delivers something totally unbelievable. However, where the script falls apart, the action excels. With real stunts, and not a drop of CGI, Need for Speed is well worth a watch for supercar aficionados who respect a good nonsensical fireball.