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Need for Speed

March 14, 2014
Need for Speed

I’ve gone on record as just about the only reviewer to enjoy Getaway, which I saw as secretly a video game movie despite not being based on any video game. So, how do you adapt an actual racing video game into a movie? As Need for Speed shows, the answer is “not like this”.

While others have complained before about adapting a property that has no actual story of its own — most recently and loudly in reference to Battleship — I don’t think that’s actually the problem here. After all, Clue didn’t have much of a story as a board game, and Super Mario Bros. is its own argument that no existing story is one less thing for an adaptation to screw up.

No, it should be possible to take the hollow shell of a cross-country auto racing game and stick in a high-octane story to drive it; something like Cannonball Run meets The Fast and the Furious. And I think that’s what Flight and Real Steel writer John Gatins had when he laid out the story, but it seems the script fell to his brother George, who can never seem to get the story into gear.

It doesn’t help the story much that we’ve got Scott “Act of Valor” Waugh directing. His background as a stuntman is great for the action — more on that later — but he still seems to regard story as what gets us from one car chase to another, so who cares if it’s hacked together?

So, to break it down: Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) and Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) both grew up racing cars in Mt. Kisco, New York. But Dino’s family was rich and he went off to become a famous Indy racer, while Tobey’s was blue-collar and he stuck around town as his father’s garage slowly went down the tubes despite the unparalleled skill of his team.

A decade or so later, Dino shows up — now married to Tobey’s old flame, Anita (Dakota Johnson) — offering Tobey and company a chance to finish rebuilding a supposedly-legendary Ford Mustang. They then bet the full sale price on a race, in which one of Tobey’s friends is killed and Tobey takes the blame while Dino claims no knowledge.

All this setup is within the first half hour; two years later, Tobey is out on parole and set on revenge. He borrows the souped-up Mustang — which comes with the pretty young Julia (Imogen Poots) as babysitter — and sets off with his team — mechanics Joe (Ramon Rodriguez) and Finn (Rami Malek) and air support Benny (Kid Cudi) — to win an illegal street race organized by the mysterious “Monarch” (Michael Keaton). Oh yeah, and they’ve got to get from New York to California in under two days to get in on the race.

As I mentioned, Waugh is really a stuntman at heart, and the dedication to realism that motivated Act of Valor is here put to good use with all practical stunts performed by the main cast themselves. Yes, Aaron Paul did have to learn how to drive like that, at least well enough for the camera to make it look good. And the racing does look good, and plenty exciting.

But every time the racing ends, the story slams on the brakes. Corny, clichéed, and predictable at every turn, it revels in every macho car-fetish trope there is. Paul is utterly wasted here, handed a role without half the texture of the one that made him famous. The only one who seems well-suited to his part is Malek, who is clearly having a hell of a time as a big, goofy kid.

If all you want is a bunch of speeding cars, roaring engines, and ‘Murica, Need for Speed certainly delivers. But even then you might be put off by the mangled covers of “All Along the Watchtower”, “Fortunate Son”, and “Back in the Saddle”, of all things. Then again, if you’re not picky about your stories you might not be picky about music either. Waugh certainly seems to be betting on it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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