[14 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s an indelible, iconic image: the American muscle car, jacked up and spitting flames, flying down the lonesome highway at blazing speeds, the classic lines and Detroit determined design merging with the horizon to create an icon linked directly into every gear heads waking dreams. As the motor revs and the mufflers growl, the internal combustion engine and its shimmering steel cage become Americana, a symbol for our struggles as a nation, the freedom we fought for, and the Industrial Revolution that made such vehicles the envy of the world.
We are car culture and car culture is us, a bizarre back and forth which avoids the ecologists and economists to provide every living, breathing male (and the occasional gal) with their own individualized gas guzzling transport and an excuse to escape. We romanticize the road, and the means of getting down one, creating a myth which still resonates even in our more green-friendly social confines.
Need for Speed could use a bit of that highway wistfulness. It could also use an editor. And a better director. And a reason to exist outside (a) it’s status as a popular video game franchise, and (b) Universal’s undeniably popular Fast and Furious films. Indeed, ever since that car chase/crash series stopped being about street racing and found its niche as a genial collections of genre mash-ups, competing studios have struggled to find something to match its box office brake horse power.
The folks at Dreamworks obviously think a simply racing game is the answer, but without a lot of console title backstory to deal with, it’s time for the writers to work their movie magic. What they create here, however, is clichéd and cloying, a revenge flick measured in RPMs and MPGs vs. anything remotely resembling human emotion. Oh, and the action scenes stink, as well.
Aaron Paul, who just finished his run on one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed TV shows of all time, settles in behind the wheel of his customized car to play Tobey Marshall, a blue collar guy struggling with several significant stock issues. First up, his father’s garage is going under and he could use a massive influx of cash to save it. Second, his childhood nemesis, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), is back in town, with Tobey’s ex on his arm.
Finally, he’s reluctantly agreed to help his rival trick out a classic Mustang, in return for a hefty percentage of the final purchase price. Sadly, Tobey’s ego can’t be appeased, so when Dino decides on one of those “you’ve got to be kidding” double of nothing bets, you know where this story set-up is going. An unexpected death, and two years in prison later, and Tobey is out looking for payback.
His hopes lie with the mysterious Monarch (Michael Keaton, in rare form) and an illegal supercar race. Dino is in, but Tobey needs some wheels. Contacting the man who bought the aforementioned Mustang, our hero picks up a plucky British gal (Imogene Poots) and the rest of his crew as they make their way across country to the California location of the mystery competition. Fighting off local law enforcement as well as individuals eager to collect the bounty Dino has placed on his head, Tobey tries his best to overcome the odds against him. Naturally, all paths lead to the suped up showdown, where the truth about what happened that fateful day and who framed our determined driver will all be revealed.
Sheesh, that’s a lot of plot for a movie about racing. Put another way, Need for Speed spends almost 30 minutes establishing the whole “business going under/wrongfully accused” aspects of the narrative before even putting us in a street racer’s passenger seat, and then, it goes back into exposition overload. Instead of believing in the power of well-crafted and choreographed action, director Scott Waugh jumps around, selecting shots which are supposed to suggest velocity and danger instead of actually putting his stuntmen in such situations. While it doesn’t appear to be reliant on CG to get its vehicular mayhem across, Need for Speed certainly doesn’t feel all that real. Indeed, each race is a combination of close-ups, aural cues, and jittery, handheld confusion.
Certain filmmakers have mastered the genre. Steven Spielberg can take an actor, a horse, and a Nazi tank and turn it into a nonstop thrill ride. James Cameron is equally capable, creating chaos out of cinematic precision and Rube Goldberg-esque mechanics. John Woo introduced the world to slo-mo shootouts and bullet ballets while Ridley Scott over-cranked his camera to accentuate his clashes. Even relative newbies like Brad Bird and Quentin Tarantino understand that the only way action truly works is to set a foundation and then find ways to get the audience involved without overwhelming them with a shoddy, shaky-cam style.
On the plus side, Need for Speed‘s relative novice Scott Waugh showed both sides of the approach with his mediocre Navy SEAL showcase, Act of Valor. On the negative side, Need for Speed offers very little of that F&F formula. It’s all talk and minimal motorized mayhem.
Paul is actually pretty bad as Tobey, looking lost most of the time. This matches Poots, who seems stuck in the role of wise-cracking sidekick without a decent set of jokes. The rest of the road crew is made up of admitted archetypes while Cooper’s Dino is a dopey villain at best. That just leaves Keaton to steal/save the show, and he almost does. Riffing like he did back in the days when he was a fledgling stand-up comic, his Monarch is a mess, but he’s also a welcome relief to all the sober seriousness on display. Indeed, Waugh and his scripters forget that this is supposed to be fun, that we’re supposed to thrill at the illegal speeds, quick reflexed reactions, and narrow escapes. Instead, the plot plods along, broken up by races which seem surprisingly static and uninvolving.
Perhaps had it taken itself less seriously, tapping into the oddball energy of the ‘70s/‘80s movies it wants to mimic (Vanishing Point, Cannonball Run, The Gumball Rally), Need for Speed would be a rousing reminder of our love affair with the car. Instead, it’s a borderline disaster which can’t see the skids marks from the long stretches of pavement we’re supposed to be experiencing. While it may be an iconic, indelible image, this combination of car and calling is just idiotic.