In Need for Speed, local grease monkey and street racer, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), is struggling to keep his auto shop business open (and his team of mechanic friends employed). With creditors knocking at his garage door, Tobey agrees to a temporary partnership with longtime opponent, professional racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), in order to complete, and then sell, a modified Ford GT500 that once belonged to renowned car designer Carroll Shelby.
After finishing the project, the brash (and insecure) Dino challenges Tobey to an impromptu race – in the hopes of humiliating his rival and making off with a bigger chunk of their sales commission. However, when the not-so-friendly race results in tragic consequence, Dino speeds away – leaving Tobey to endure a two year prison term (for a crime that he did not commit). Upon his release, Tobey vows to prove his innocence through the only means available to him – journeying across the country to compete in the mother of all illegal street races.
Moviegoers have been skeptical about Need for Speed ever since it was first announced – and for good reasons: it’s a video game adaptation, with a relatively thin premise, that (no doubt) attempts to capitalize on continued interest in the mega-successful Fast and Furious franchise. Based on those details alone, it would be easy to dismiss Need for Speed as a shallow cash grab; however, the final film, from Act of Valor director Scott Waugh, differentiates itself enough to be a worthwhile watch. The story may be flimsy and a few over-the-top moments will have viewers rolling their eyes, but a solid mix of amusing personalities paired with eye-popping practical (not CGI) racing sequences should engage both car enthusiasts and casual moviegoers – assuming they’re open to a fun, albeit brainless, high speed adventure.
The Need for Speed storyline borrows elements from the video game franchise (including law enforcement crackdown) - but is not an outright adaptation of any one installment. Instead, the script, written and developed by George and John Gatins, is a very basic tale of injustice and retribution – set in a world where heroes can solve their legal troubles by racing cars through crowded city streets (often at the expense of/damage to innocent bystanders). It’s a goofy setup, one that significantly limits what the film can explore in its two hour runtime, but the Gatins make up for any shortcomings in the core narrative by padding the film with fun set pieces and an enjoyable cast of quirky side characters.
Aaron Paul (known best for his portrayal of Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad) isn’t given much to work with outside his standard repertoire but, at the same time, he elevates what could have been a one-note role. In spite of thin scripting, Paul actually fleshes Tobey out with gravity and charm – ensuring that even the most heavy-handed character beats supply emotional impact. Yet, Tobey can also take (or give) a joke and Paul has no trouble playing-off the rest of Need for Speed‘s ensemble for cathartic laughs.
As indicated, the supporting cast is surprisingly rich – especially in the case of Tobey’s co-pilot, Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots). Certain aspects of Julia try too hard to differentiate the character from damsel in distress tropes but, overall, her spirited personality is a fun juxtaposition (especially against Paul’s more solemn disposition). Team Tobey members Finn (Rami Malek) and Joe Peck (Ramon Rodriguez) help fuel the storyline and offer tongue-in-cheek gags but Scott Mescudi (also known as rapper Kid Cudi) steals the comedy relief spotlight in nearly every one of his scenes – as pilot/navigator/watch dog Benny. Select Benny moments challenge disbelief but the character is essential in keeping the dynamic between Tobey and his team light-hearted – irrespective of dark turns.
Unfortunately, while Dominic Cooper gives a serviceable performance as Dino, the character is underdeveloped. Waugh attempts to flesh Dino out with conflicted emotions and financial pressures of his own, but regardless of the filmmaker’s intent, the script prevents Dino from becoming anything more than a stock cartoon villain. Similarly, Michael Keaton makes a brief appearance as race organizer Monarch and while his contribution is fun to watch, Keaton’s overblown portrayal is often excessive instead of intriguing.
Of course the true stars of Need for Speed will be the cars – along with Waugh’s heart-pounding race sequences. Car enthusiasts will have plenty of rubber and metal to feast their eyes on, with appearances from the 2015 Ford Mustang GT, Saleen S7, as well as Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, among others, and the filmmaker captures the raw power of the machines with in your-face visuals and sound design. Need for Speed is a loud and frantic film but, in spite of all the high speed flash, Waugh succeeds at keeping the cinematography (mostly) grounded. The choice to shoot the racing sequences using actual cars and stunt drivers, not CGI post-production, sets Need for Speed apart with a convincing realism that is noticeably absent in modern blockbuster vehicle chases.
Moviegoers who now expect fist punching machismo and complicated heist sequences in their car racing movies will likely find Need for Speed to be a cliched and restricting movie experience – one that spends more time following exotic muscle cars around hairpin turns than it does developing main character arcs or surprising viewers with unique twists. However, speeding from one rip-roaring chase to the next is what sets Waugh’s film apart from similar offerings. Even though it’s not a particularly smart or original movie, car lovers and films fans that are willing to switch off their brains should find Need for Speed offers (at the very least) an amusing ride.
If you’re still on the fence about the Need for Speed movie, check out the trailer below:
Need for Speed runs 130 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check out our Need for Speed episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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