by Philip Price
The first trailer for stuntman turned director Scott Waugh's sophomore effort, “Need for Speed,” hinted at something more than your typical video game movie; it was orchestral and well put-together with pedigree and something slightly haunting, solemn and meditated about its approach to the unexplainable infatuation people can have not just with cars, but with danger. What the final film actually feels like though is a slick pop confection with good intentions, don't get me wrong, but whose lyrics are nothing but vapid and a chorus that is completely forgettable. I don't play video games at all and despite the fact the “Need for Speed” gaming franchise is one of the most successful of all time I can't help but feel like this flick missed the bandwagon and is coming around at least 10 years too late. This would have been another fine-enough companion piece to the phase that gave us “Torque,” “Biker Boyz,” Stallone's “Driven” and of course the original “Fast and Furious” title. Still, even the ‘F&F’ movies aren't really about street racing anymore and even if they were the only incarnation of that series this seems to have taken any note of would be the fourth with its dry plot points and inability to build the right kind of tension or drama and that is the least favorite for most fans of the series. Waugh has a good eye, his shots are nicely put together and if nothing else the film looks spectacular, but even with this kind of compliment comes the stipulation a film about ex-cons, street racers and cross-country road trips that include outrunning the police at every turn shouldn't look as "nice" as the film makes them out to be and certainly not as clean as these guys are able to maintain. It simply all feels a bit forced, a bit strained and the audience can sense that. There is a line in the film where Imogen Poots’ character, Julia, says to Aaron Paul's Tobey Marshall that she understands that driving fast is necessary, but driving like a maniac is not and especially with the intention Paul's character has in mind. I only wish first-time screenwriter George Gatins would have followed some of his own advice and allowed the fast driving to guide the script rather than indulging in the presumed wants of the audience and delivering action for its own sake rather than allowing it to drive the narrative.
We meet Tobey as he stands outside what is supposed to look like a vintage American garage in the middle of everywhere USA, though it looks as pristine as everything else in the film and is located in what is actually Mt. Kisco, N.Y. He is getting a lecture from what seems to be someone from the bank and as we can guess the shop has probably been in his family for years we can guess this guy doesn't come with good news. Still, as Tobey doesn't let his co-workers in on his financial troubles they seem to enjoy the comfort of big screen TV's, airplanes and pretty expensive cars they race through the open streets of Mt. Kisco at night, after the drive-in movie mind you. There is a loss of logic somewhere within the first fifteen minutes or so, but that is a conversation for another time because as we are receiving all of this expository information we are also intermittently being delivered narration by "Monarch" as played by Michael Keaton. Keaton has a knack for hamming things up in genuinely funny ways while including just the right amount of narcissism to help audiences believe he is really only in these types of movies for the paycheck (he pulled it off expertly in last month’s “RoboCop”), but his ridiculous character here can't even be taken as self-obsessed, though he certainly is excessive. Hosting what appears to be a 24-hour radio show he is supposedly a mysterious figure who puts on a by-invitation only race each year know as the DeLeon where the winner takes all, can you see where this is going no matter what happens beforehand? Thought so. Of course, Tobey being the blue collar hometown hero who never followed his skills to NASCAR wouldn't be complete without the proper rival who is brought to us in the form of Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) a truly despicable human being who flaunts his money and success in front of Tobey upon returning to Mt. Kisco. Their rivalry heats up when Dino challenges him to a race and includes his girlfriends little brother and Tobey's friend little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) which results in a wreck, Pete's death and Dino framing Tobey for manslaughter. This is no spoiler as it happens early in the film and sets the stakes for the second match-up between Toby and Dino at the, you guessed it, DeLeon.
What could have been a mindless exercise in stunts and thrilling racing sequences allows itself to instead be too bogged down in its clichéd narrative and misguided tone that never meshes style and story very well. For starters, the score completely undermines the more serious and heated tone the visuals and acting of lead Paul seem to be going for almost making it feel like a cheaper, TV movie. There is a preciseness to the wardrobes that are so perfectly combined it would seem impossible to be authentic because it looks more like a commercial for all the brands these characters are wearing rather than a movie trying to make an honest interpretation of what it must feel like to have the skill, but not necessarily the will to want a certain kind of lifestyle most long for. In many ways this lack of attention to detail can be dismissed in the scheme of things and simply taken as a stylistic choice, a hyper-realized reality where everything stays in its place, because this movie was always going to be more about the action than anything else. Unfortunately, it never felt like there was enough of it or at least, not the right kind. I never walk into a movie hoping it doesn't at least meet the expectations the marketing campaign for it has set for me and in the case of “Need for Speed” I was really hoping to be knocked back into my seat by some of the things the experienced Waugh and his team had pulled off, but was disappointed when I found the movie to be more full of placeholder action moments that pure, unadulterated adrenaline. There are a few examples to bring up here, but where it really came is a certain run-in at a gas station in the middle of the film that 1) is completely unnecessary and 2) features barely any car action. It feels it is only present to create middle tension which would have done well to simply be more cars going fast with impressive stunts rather than trying to pull narrow escapes out of its back pocket. If you've seen the trailers you've also seen the coolest stunt the film has to offer where the Ford Mustang goes barreling off the side of a cliff only to be suspended in mid-air by a helicopter. Though the high-flying act is pretty entertaining it never becomes a sequence to be applauded and that is what this movie should have been stocked full of.
If anything was ever going to save this film though and maybe even make it something a little more it was the presence of Aaron Paul. Just coming off the whirlwind success of everything that is “Breaking Bad” and no doubt feeling the pressure to make the successful transition from small screen to big, Paul seems like an intelligent, intense actor who is more than happy to look at a script and sign up for it if he thinks it’s interesting or could be fun. I'm sure “Need for Speed” sounded like a lot of fun when they pitched it to him and I'm sure Waugh and his producers were happy to bring Paul on board as his introduction to major movie audiences, but the two should have thought about their relationship and how it might play out before jumping in so carelessly. The persona of Jesse Pinkman will always follow Paul around and so when he is cast as the tall, stoic guy it is hard to accept when he is neither tall nor has he been anything close to stoic in who we immediately identify as an over-emotional druggie. Sure, we can say kudos to Paul for not trying to simply continue playing the same character, but it doesn't seem he yet has the gravitas for this type of role. We want to like Tobey because we like Paul and the characters plight is admirable, but then again if I were in traffic one day and this guy came speeding through as he does countless times in the film, I'd think of him as nothing but an asshole. There is something appealing about his gangs care free spirits though, especially that of Rami Malek's character, Finn. He is made to be the comic relief of the film and though his scenes seem completely foreign to the rest of the film they were also the only times it felt like the makers allowed their natural tendencies to flourish rather than adhering to the by-the-book code that is looming over the production. That said, Kid Cudi or Scott Mescudi as he is named on the poster has a long way to go and Ramon Rodriguez is essentially non-existent. Cooper, as the other major player, is hamming it up and in no good or interesting way. A pre-Anastasia Steel Dakota Johnson shows up in a few scenes adding nothing of considerable measure while Poots and Paul (great name for a band, write that down) have fine enough chemistry, but we never buy into them as a couple. Plus, you know the inside of that car had to smell funky after 45 hours straight.