Need for Speed (DreamWorks Pictures, PG-13)

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Need for Speed is a movie that will play great when you stumble upon it while flipping through channels late at night a few years from now.

 

needforspeed 500There’s a really enjoyable 90-minute movie somewhere in Need for Speed. Unfortunately, it’s buried under an additional 40 minutes of boring melodrama. At its core, it’s a very simple revenge story. Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) enters into a race with Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), and his young friend Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) tags along for the ride. Marshall wins and Brewster, in a fit of rage, slams into the car being driven by Pete, causing said car and said Pete to crash and explode into flames. Brewster then panics and drives away, leaving Marshall a suspect in the murder of his friend and he goes to jail for two years. I’m not sure how the legal logic of all that works, but for a movie like this, I am happy to look past such details.

This is the set-up, but it is only part of the interminable first half hour. Before the race that actually matters, we get another race straight out of The Fast and the Furious, and I mean the early shitty ones, not the recent good ones. This race serves no purpose but to set up Tobey and his friends, which is pretty much done again once they are all hanging out afterwards. We get an endless amount of back story about how Brewster and Marshall hate each other, but Marshall’s mechanic shop is nearing foreclosure so he agrees to help him build a fancy new Ford Mustang and Pete’s sister is dating Brewster which leads to more tension and blah blah blah. It’s endless and it all takes itself incredibly seriously, which in turn makes me hate it even more.

Once released from jail, Tobey decides to drive from New York to California to compete in a legendary, illegal cross-country race to defeat Brewster once and for all. This high-speed road trip takes up at least an hour of screen time, and you know, it’s kind of fun. We get some great scenery as a backdrop, and the chase scenes get to evolve to fit the environment. There are some classic Hal Needham-esque run-ins with the law, and the cast actually gets to have some fun.

This is Aaron Paul’s first big role post-Breaking Bad, and he has said that it’s a completely different character. He’s a very good actor, but here he isn’t really doing anything different from his role of Jesse, but at least in this middle act he can be fun, charming Jesse, and not the mopey doom-and-gloom Jesse of the first act. The delightfully-named Imogen Poots is one of the most awkwardly inserted love interests in a genre replete with awkwardly inserted love interests, but she does a lot with very little and makes the role work. The rest of Tobey’s team includes Rami Malek from The Master and Short Term 12, and Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi), who is the typical black comic relief sidekick in that he is the butt of all the group’s jokes, despite the fact that he is easily the coolest one of all of them. This is also the second time in about a month that Michael Keaton is on the big screen, and he’s always welcome. It’s a surprisingly strong cast, and even more surprising in the one weak link. I’ve seen Dominic Cooper in quite a few movies, and I’ve always liked him, but he’s terrible as the villain in this. The character is not great to begin with. He’s a whiney crybaby who basically stumbles into the villain role on accident, but Cooper, unlike Poots, does nothing to elevate a subpar character. Every time we leave the action to cut back to him, the movie comes to a screeching halt.

Of course, once our heroes reach California, the sense of fun goes out the window, and we are back into heavy melodrama. There is the big final race, but it’s not that different than the ones we’ve already seen, and to make matters worse, it’s weighted down by the fact that it’s trying so hard to work us emotionally, as well as viscerally. I’ve seen that work in better films, but when it’s done poorly, it drives me crazy.

Every piece of promotion I’ve seen for Need for Speed has focused on the fact that the action scenes almost exclusively utilize real cars and actual stunts. The director Scott Waugh started out in stunts and says he wanted to recall car chase films of the seventies. I appreciate that, and I always prefer practical stunts, but the vibe is just wrong. This film was shot on extremely sharp digital cameras, which immediately removes any seventies vibe he might have wanted, and there is a clear sense of trying to be current and appeal to the kids, while also following in the footsteps of movies they don’t care about. It seems like Waugh intended the hero Mustang to be a new iconic movie car like the Mustang in Bullitt or the Challenger in Vanishing Point, but it’s a modern car, and therefore it lacks personality and the whole thing feels more like a commercial than a cool thing for the film.

Need for Speed is a movie that will play great when you stumble upon it while flipping through channels late at night a few years from now. Its action scenes are well filmed and edited and occasionally exciting, and the cast is likable enough to make the movie fun in segments. Taken as a whole, it is almost unbearable. Two hours and ten minutes is too long for any movie based on a video game, let alone a video game with no story. It’s a shame because this could have been a great throwback, and it’s a significant improvement over Scott Waugh’s last film, Act of Valor. He’s got talent and he seems to have good taste, but he needs to stop trying to move us and focus on making the down and dirty action movie that this could have been. | Sean Lass

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