It’s a testament to the involvement that I felt in a movie about fast cars and racing that I left the theater and found myself pushing a little harder on the gas pedal. I’ll admit that Need for Speed had that effect on me, and so did some of the better movies in this genre, notably those similar entries in the franchise started with The Fast and the Furious. As a rule, I don’t respect films that take their titles from songs or electronic games. There have been exceptions in both cases. For the most part, such connections to the music and gaming fields have been horrible. I didn’t see usage of the successful Electronic Arts franchise beyond the title. Need for Speed somehow manages to avoid the massive plot potholes and the logic police to deliver the goods as far as entertainment and screen time for fast, exotic cars.
Director Scott Waugh (codirector of Act of Valor) and writer George Gatins clearly patterned Need for Speed after the aforementioned successful film series starring Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. This film was certainly finished before Walker’s death in November 2013, but I have a strong feeling that there was a plan in place to leverage the success of the games into a possible movie rivalry. The major problem with that plan is the bad, derivative script by Gatins. This is his first feature film writing credit, and he borrows heavily from other flicks with car stunts and races. Waugh polishes this turd to perfection and adds a likable cast and some highly kinetic sequences behind the wheels of a variety of beautiful cars. For every moment that doesn’t make any sense, there’s another one to up the wow factor and make you forget about the indiscretions. I laughed out loud at the stunts at the same time that I shook my head about the filmmakers’ boldness or cluelessness. Yeah, it’s that kind of experience.
Need for Speed has a strange structure. What would normally be a prologue is extended to almost half of the movie. Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad) struggles to keep alive his mechanic business, Marshall Motors, by winning races and scaring up other odd jobs in Mt. Kisco, New York. His crew includes Joe Peck (Ramon Rodriguez), Finn (Rami Malek), Benny (Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi) and Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson). Former high school rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) escaped Mt. Kisco to become a successful entrepreneur in the automotive industry and took Tobey’s girlfriend Anita (Dakota Johnson of the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey) along with him. Dino and Anita — also Little Pete’s sister — show up at the drive-in that’s conveniently screening Bullitt just as Tobey’s about to race for $5,000. Dino later sets up Tobey for a crime that he didn’t commit, and Tobey plans to get his revenge via the super secret underground race known as the DeLeon, which is arranged by reclusive radio host The Monarch (Michael Keaton). Tobey takes car dealer Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots) on a cross-country journey to the start of the DeLeon, so there’s a big race before the race just in case you didn’t get enough with the Mt. Kisco race and the DeLeon.
Plot is almost meaningless because it’s just a means for people to get behind the wheel and drive real fast. Most of the plot points make no logical or physical sense. For example, Benny is the air support for Tobey’s races, and he inexplicably keeps up with Tobey and Julia as they make their way from New York to California without considering his fuel supply or how he can catch up to the car when he’s forced to switch aircraft. Our roads have traffic cameras all over the place, so it’s hard to believe that a few different crucial facts used to convict Tobey are not caught on multiple cameras that could be used in court. It goes on and on, and even worse, the story is predictable in so many ways, including one character’s race gone bad, another’s switch in allegiance and the inevitable conclusion of the DeLeon and the movie. I defy you to not watch Need for Speed and yell at the screen or otherwise respond to the silliness of certain parts.
The good makes up for the bad to bring it back to even. Waugh stages slick action sequences and stunts from start to finish. This film never lets up on the accelerator, and that’s an important feat to achieve given its weakness in narrative. MythBusters could do about 10 shows on the stunts and other car myths in Need for Speed. Although these scenes aren’t physically possible, including a jump that defies even video game physics, they’re a hoot to watch. The visuals are stunning as the film makes its way from New York through Detroit to San Francisco with Georgia substituting for rural New York. The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah are stunning even without cars or people, but the best of all is the finale on a California cliff with a lighthouse. Hats off to cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, known for other movies like Act of Valor, Terminator Salvation and We Are Marshall. Many of the street racing scenes take place at night for both logistical reasons and common sense — they don’t race during the day when traffic is a factor — and both the lighting and the slick streets provide some gorgeous shots.
If you’re an exotic car enthusiast, Need for Speed is the equivalent of car porn. You can look up the entire list of cars elsewhere. The standouts for me were a trio of Koenigsegg Agera models in a key chase and the 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 in which Tobey and Julia spend most of their time on their way to the DeLeon. Sure, there are a Lamborghini, a GTA Spano and a Bugatti among the six cars in the DeLeon race. The Ford Mustang is the real star here among the vehicles, and the loving shots of the cherry red 2015 Ford Mustang GT amount to a short car commercial. People complained about The LEGO Movie as an ad for the toy company. That was nothing. Need for Speed clearly favors Ford models, including a Gran Torino in the opening race absent Clint Eastwood’s awful singing. I’m a little biased because I had great success with my 1994 Ford Taurus, which lasted me 16 years and well over 200,000 miles. When it was time to put that car out to Radiator Springs, I went right out and bought a 2011 Ford Taurus. I’m already past 50,000 miles on my way to see if I can beat the other totals. American cars often take the backseat to foreign manufacturers in racing movies, so it’s nice to see a domestic company in a prominent role. Heck, we all know that Detroit needs some love these days. Hardcore Pawn can’t save their economy by itself.
I was surprised that I enjoyed Need for Speed as much as did, especially with the logic gears in my head shifting from moment to moment. Malek distracted me a lot because he looks so much like Carson Daly, and fans of Malek will enjoy a particularly liberating and tricky office scene. Paul makes a convincing lead, and Poots will likely get some major attention that she long deserved. Keaton is confined to a single set, so he doesn’t have much to do here except narrate the races. However, he does offer one of my favorite movie lines of the year so far. (I’ve written it backwards in white text at the bottom of this review as I did in Iron Man 3 to avoid spoiling it for you. Highlight it if you want to see it.) Would I like to see another Need for Speed movie? Absolutely. The game franchise keeps on living, including the latest Need for Speed: Rivals. Why not continue the movies as well? If they bring the same blend of humor, excitement and visuals to a sequel and somehow avoid all of the speed traps in its plot, I’ll call shotgun.
“.stunhguod tae dluohs spoC .ecar dluohs srecaR”