Believe it or not, I volunteered to review Need For Speed. Not out of any genuine interest — the early trailers didn’t look particularly impressive — but because, having avidly played a few of the entries in Electronic Arts’s video game franchise that the film is based on, I figured I could at least bring a little bit of insight into what would likely be yet another soulless cash-grab video game movie. So it was with a sort of tired trepidation that I entered the theater and plopped down, hoping for at least a small amount of entertainment.
Fifteen minutes later, I was overcome by a curious sensation. I… I was enjoying myself. Don’t be too confused — Need For Speed isn’t a great film, but as far as racing films go, it’s got solid entertainment value and a gift for crowd-pleasing and as far as video game adaptations go, it’s a goddamn masterpiece. It’s story is beyond preposterous and the performances are all over the place, but when it ditches its efforts at drama and seriousness and simply lets itself loose, it was hard not to get swept up in it.
Let’s rewind a bit. There have been a couple of approaches to making video game adaptations, and it’s been a mostly rocky road. There’s little consensus regarding which is the “best” of the genre — my personal favorite has historically been the original Resident Evil, but many others will swear by the first Silent Hill, which is a decent film bogged down by its own melodrama and messy writing. But generally speaking, there are two primary avenues — a straightforward adaptation wherein you try to adapt the existing storyline (the more common choice), or instead one can simply use the game as a rough framework, borrowing elements from its existing universe while also writing your own story to inhabit that same space. This is the path that Paul W.S. Anderson has taken with the Resident Evil movies, using many elements from that universe, while also telling his own stories. The catch is, of course, that those movies are mostly terrible.
Need For Speed uses that second tactic with much greater success, aided by the fact that racing games generally don’t have a story at all, and thus allowing a film maker much greater flexibility (in fact, Waugh and screenwriter George Gatins could have made this film with a completely different title and not had to worry one iota about any kind of infringement threats — it’s essentially just using the name as a marketing tool). The film centers around Breaking Bad co-star Aaron Paul as Tobey Marshall, a down-on-his-luck mechanic whose shop is going under despite the best efforts of his employee buddies Peck (Ramon Rodriguez), Benny (Scott Mescudi, aka rapper Kid Cudi), Finn (Rami Malek), and Pete (Harrison Gilbertson). He’s given the opportunity to reassemble a rare Shelby Mustang for professional racer and amateur scumbag Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), which gains him some fame and acclaim, much to the arrogant Dino’s chagrin.
There are a series of twists and tragedies that come as a result, which often don’t make a ton of sense, but the short version is that one of Tobey’s friends dies due to Dino’s sloppy racing style, and Tobey takes the rap. After two years in prison, he’s released and seeks redemption and revenge by trying to entering an invitation-only, highly illegal race sponsored by an eccentric recluse (energetically played by Michael Keaton). The catch is that Tobey needs to get himself — and his car — there in 48 hours and can’t fly, so what follows is a breathless, frenzied drive from New York to California. Along for the ride is Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), who represents Tobey’s sponsor, while his buddies take on various support roles.
It’s utterly ridiculous, for the most part. The stunts done by just his friends include driving a pickup truck at high speeds and refueling Tobey’s car at 90 miles an hour, as well as Benny repeatedly stealing or borrowing various aircraft, and as for Tobey himself, the driving sequences are pretty much bananas. Insane jumps, flying recklessly through traffic, dangerous and unimaginable chases, and the coup de grace of silliness, a high speed chase through a Utah desert with shotguun-toting psychos chasing after them that ends in, well, something you really do have to see to fully comprehend. What makes all of this more interesting, and in some ways more fulfilling is the fact that Waugh — the son of a Hollywood stunt driver — is a dedicated realist who eschewed all CGI effects, instead opting for practical ones. The cast had to endure intense driving training as a result (including Mescudi actually having to get a pilot’s license), and as such it all feels real because it often actually is. Much like Waugh’s first film, the Navy SEAL pic Act Of Valor, there’s a heightened sense of realism despite how utterly crazy what you’re seeing may feel, something you rarely get from something like the Fast and Furious franchise, regardless of how practical those effects are supposed to be.
There’s also a easygoing camaraderie between Aaron Paul and his co-stars, particularly Mescudi and Poots. Those three are certainly the strongest of the leads, and for the most part, watching their banter and interplay is enjoyable, and the budding romance between Tobey and Julia is downplayed and unforced. The limits are stretched to breaking in some of the other interactions, and when the film shoots for high drama, it falls fast and hard, but when it’s just fun and goofing off, it usually works out. The horrible downside is Cooper’s Dino, a villain shoehorned into the story who never hits the mark. It’s a thankless role, poorly scripted and, and it rings totally hollow throughout the film, particularly due to a tired subplot involving Dino dating (of course) Tobey’s ex-girlfriend (played with with an absolute emotional vacancy by Dakota Johnson).
Need For Speed hits a lot of the right notes when it comes to driving and racing, and had it settled for being a simple buddy movie about a cross country chase/race, it would have worked superbly. However, it threw a few too many other ingredients into the mix, including several needless subplots, a silly caricature of a villain, and plot twists that defy even the most forgiving viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Oddly, I can’t judge it too harshly because the fact is that I enjoyed it far more than I expected, and there’s more to like — even if you feel a little silly about it — than there is to dislike. And so at the very least, (although it’s admittedly faint praise) I can happily proclaim it to be one of the best video game movies ever made. For whatever that may be worth.