‘Need for Speed’ Is About the Thrill of the Ride, Not the Script

Besides just lavishing attention on the cars, director Scott Waugh loves placing them in the context of other, classic driving movies, from Bullitt to American Graffiti.

The Fast and the Furious franchise can only put out, at most, one film per year. Hoping to fill the street-racing film niche in the off-months is Need for Speed, a high-octane B-movie loosely based on the video game series that has all the horsepower, bro-bonding, and chosen family of good-hearted hoodlums a Furious fan could want.

Need for Speed takes its time setting up stakes, so that our hero, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), is racing for all the right reasons—emphasis on the all. After a disastrous street race that ends in the death of Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), Marshall’s surrogate little brother, Marshall is sent to prison for manslaughter. A third racer, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper)—a ’50s greaser character name if ever there was one—escapes without being placed at the scene of the race, despite being the driver who actually caused Pete’s death.

After serving time and getting released, Marshall enters the prestigious, invitation-only (and illegal) DeLeon race to avenge Little Pete, clear his good name, save his deceased daddy’s struggling auto-mechanic shop, win the love of a good woman (Julia Maddon, played by Imogen Poots), fulfill one of Little Pete’s prophecies (seriously), and prove once and for all that he’s just a better driver than Brewster. (It’s no wonder the running time is 132 minutes.)

These are noble motivations, to be sure, but they’re really just there to get Marshall into one perilous driving situation after another. Marshall is wanted for skipping parole, hunted by Brewster’s minions, and has a ridiculously short amount of time to even get to the starting line of the DeLeon. This puts Marshall into an escalating series of races, getaways, and crazy stunts, all taking place in iconic road-trip locations from Detroit (the Motor City) to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In other words, this is a car movie, one made for people who love cars, and for people who love other car movies. Enthusiasts get to gawk at Marshall’s Ford Mustang GT500 and other exotic cars, like a Lamborghini Sesto Elemento or a Koenigsegg Agera R.

These cars are treated (and shot) with a lot of love. Director Scott Waugh, in his commentary with Paul, mentions that he favors practical effects over CGI, and you can tell; the cars have heft and weight to them, and the most interesting visuals in the film are done in the service of the driving scenes. The cars are also the subject of most of the Blu-ray’s features, which do everything from break down the biggest stunts to analyze the different rumbles that each car makes.

But besides just lavishing attention on the cars, Waugh loves placing them in the context of other, classic driving movies, from Bullitt to American Graffiti. In the commentary, Waugh and Paul point out many of these references (and, yes, video game Easter eggs, too), down to the tiniest background details. (A stunt coordinator and son of a stunt coordinator, Waugh also likes to give shout-outs to all of the stunt drivers and their previous films.) When Bullitt is playing in the background of a drive-in theater during one of the opening scenes of the film, Waugh mentions that he was afraid the movie would come across as a period film, since he puts in so many references to the ’60s and ’70s.

Not as much care is taken with the people in the film. Paul certainly has the charismatic, lovable hero thing down, and he doesn’t squander any of the good will he’s built up with his role in Breaking Bad. He looks good behind the wheel of a car—the role requires much face-acting, with lots of close-up shots of intense, focused concentration from behind the dashboard—and he makes it easy to root for him. He also has an effortless chemistry with Poots, who does well with her gearhead-in-Gucci-boots character.

There isn’t really enough charm to spread around the rest of the cast, though, and the rest of their crew is rounded out with empty characters. Benny (Scott Mescudi, also known as Kid Cudi) is supposed to function as the wacky comic relief, but the “wacky” often overshadows the “comedy.” There are two others in the group, Finn (Rami Malek) and Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), but they don’t distinguish themselves as people—and at times it’s unclear what purpose they serve in Marshall’s plan. (A big deal is made about how Finn is supposed to help tune up Marshall’s car before the big race, but it enters the contestant check-in looking more beat-up than ever.) The cast never coalesces the way the Fast and the Furious cast does, where, even if the characters are boring individually, it looks like they’re having a great time hanging out with each other.

Oddly enough, the only other actor to match Paul’s charisma never interacts with any of the other actors. Michael Keaton is almost movie-stealing as “Monarch”, the reclusive vlogger behind the DeLeon. Monarch isn’t quite Beetlejuice without the makeup, but it wouldn’t have been out of place to hear him say, “Let’s turn on the juice and see what shakes loose.”

It’s unfortunate, then, that Keaton and Paul have to deal with such a dopey script. But the movie wasn’t made for people who want to get lost in a story; it’s instead for those who don’t really care what happens between point A and point B, so long as it happens very, very fast, and behind the wheel of a hot ride.

RATING 5 / 10