Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: Need for Speed

Hit the brakes.

Need for Speed is the latest entry in the "racing cool cars" genre -- one which started back in the AIP days of the '60s, carried through the '70s drive-in craze and has resurfaced this decade thanks to the success of the Fast & Furious franchise. Apparently, this one is based on a video game, which I didn't even know until after I saw the movie. Apparently, it's a very famous and very popular video game. I am unaware of this because I am very uncool. That being the case, Need for Speed is another in a long tradition of shitty movies based on video games.
Aaron Paul plays Tobey, a famous street racer who owns his own body shop he operates with his friends Finn (Rami Malek), Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), Benny (Scott Mescudi, aka rapper Kid Cudi) and young Pete (Harrison Gilbertson). Pete's older sister is the one that got away and is now dating Dino (Dominic Cooper), Tobey's arch nemesis and a racer who actually drove the Indy 5000. Dino hires Tobey and his crew for a job, but during a race sabotages Pete's car. Pete is killed and Dino takes off, leaving Tobey to take the blame and do two years in prison.

Still with me? Because that's 40 minutes of screen time and the movie proper hasn't really even started yet. That's good storytelling.

Tobey gets out after a "Two Years Later" smash cut and immediately sets his sights on racing in the De Leon, a top secret race taking place in California and organized by DJ Monarch (Michael Keaton), a racing guru who exists anonymously only online. Tobey needs the help of Julia (Imogen Poots) to secure a super fast Mustang he and his friends restored for her boss (fucking A this is a complicated plot summary for such a dumb movie). SO Tobey and Julia head off across the country with only 48 hours to get to California, while Dino does everything he can to sabotage their efforts.

Say what you will about the Fast & Furious movies, to which this one will probably be most compared because of its focus on street racing. Sure, the F&F movies are capable of being goofy and a little dumb, but they are master's classes of filmmaking compared to this. For one, they have characters. They might be simple and thinly sketched, but they are characters that we know and understand and are willing to follow in movie after movie. Not one person in Need for Speed counts as a character, as I am unable to describe them in any way at all. One is the main guy and he is good at driving. One is the bad guy and is also good at driving. One is supposed to be funny? And also black. One is British and has a vagina.
But the Fast & Furious movies also set up clear stakes and clear rules -- we know who the bad guys are and why our heroes (even antiheroes) need to take them down. They go after drug lords and criminals. When Fast Five has the gang taking on a bunch of cops, it is clearly established that they are corrupt cops. They are bad guys. The cops who smash up their cars and get hurt in Need for Speed are guys trying to do their jobs and protect the streets from assholes like the characters in Need for Speed.

And therein lies one of the central problems of the movie. These people are basically shitheads who want to treat the roads as their own playground, and we're supposed to agree that they should be allowed to drive however they want and endanger the lives of innocent people around them because they are cooler and drive more expensive cars. Even the dramatic "hook" of the movie -- that Aaron Paul wants to avenge his friend who died because Dominic Cooper tapped his bumper and then didn't come back for him -- is built on a lie. Pete dies because he is driving way, way too fast and living a reckless lifestyle. Need for Speed wants to pretend that someone is responsible for Pete's death other than Pete.

Also -- and I don't think this is a spoiler -- they're not racing for any real reason. Tobey has already earned the money to keep his shop open (remember that pointless device?), lest you think the inciting incident of the movie be driven by any actual storytelling necessity. It's just a stupid accident that happens during what is essentially a joyride.

On a recent podcast for the remake of RoboCop, I argued that one of the reasons that movie failed was because it turned into something different every 20 minutes, losing interest in everything that came before. Need for Speed is even more egregiously guilty of this offense.

First, it's a boring movie about a proud body shop owner who has to take a job from a guy he doesn't like in order to hold on to his business. Then it's a movie about a guy who is wrongly (not wrongly) sent to prison after his friend is killed in a crash. Then it immediately forgets about the two years in prison and the dead friend (it's literally dealt with in under a minute and dismissed with a single cut) and becomes a wacky cross-country road trip movie starring a mismatched couple. Then the bad guy puts out a bounty on the hero and it becomes The Road Warrior, with a bunch of truckers and racers doing anything they can to stop Paul and Poots from getting to California.

Does that sound interesting? It is. Unfortunately, it comes up over 90 minutes and six plots into the movie. It also lasts the span of ONLY ONE SCENE. They are attacked, they get away. Then the movie settles in for the climax, which is -- surprise! -- one last big race.
Also -- and I don't think this is a spoiler -- the sequence clearly demonstrates that the filmmakers don't understand good drama when they have it. Paul and Poots switch places so he can get some sleep; when he awakes, they are under attack. A better movie would understand that this could be interesting -- it's too late for them to switch back, so Paul would have to talk Poots through how to escape. He would have to show off his skills despite being unable to actually drive. Instead, the movie has Poots be just as good a driver as Paul, so it doesn't matter who's behind the wheel. They are interchangeable video game characters.

Aaron Paul has had roles in a handful of movies -- who can forget his turn as Floyd, the guy who dreamed of pulling off the best prank ever in the 2000 teen comedy Whatever It Takes? -- but this is his first big starring role coming off Breaking Bad, one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved television series of all time. He's fine in the movie in that he broods and looks convincingly like he is driving, but there's nothing about the performance that screams MOVIE STAR. Imogen Poots fares slightly better, only because she has a nice smile and feels relaxed and cute in a movie desperately in need of someone to like. I won't suggest that the movie needs to lighten up, because it is light in spots. They're just all the wrong spots. The movie is jokey when it ought to be serious (like immediately after Pete dies) and super grim when it ought to be having more fun (like most of the rest of the movie). It gets its own tone all backwards.

Michael Keaton shows up in the movie just to prove he can be in a worse movie this year than RoboCop. Or maybe it's to prove that he can be in a car movie that's more embarrassing than Herbie Fully Loaded.
Keaton makes almost any movie in which he appears automatically better, but every one of his scenes in Need for Speed is laughable -- not because of his performance, but because the screenplay requires that he just play an underground racing guru who wears douchbag sunglasses and spends the whole movie talking into a webcam saying embarrassing grandpa shit like "My inbox is white hot!"

Also -- and I don't think this is a spoiler -- the climactic race plays out with Michael Keaton narrating the whole thing into his computer. There are no cameras mounted on the streets so the supposed millions of people tuning in to the webcast can...I don't the fucking race. There aren't even cameras mounted in the cars. Millions of people are watching the biggest and most notorious underground street race of the year and all they get is Michael Keaton's face describing things to them. Need for Speed can't even get the shit it's supposed to know about right.

Some of the racing sequences are staged well, mostly because of stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh's (who was responsible for 2012's Act of Valor) insistence on practical cars, practical driving, practical stunts. There is one shot -- taken from inside a car as it launches upside down into the air -- that is almost worth seeing the movie for alone. Almost, but not quite.

Need for Speed is one of those bad movies where it's obvious everyone involved is capable of better. The direction is slick and competent, the photography good, the performances fine if only they had characters to play. Broken down into parts, there's nothing all that offensive about it. When it's all assembled together and combined with its shitty script, however, it adds up to a hunk of junk. I found myself watching it and wishing more than once that I was instead watching The Chase with Charlie Sheen and Kristy Swanson. That's a better movie than this one. Make of that what you will.


  1. I knew this wouldn't be the epic film that AMC Movie Talk hyped up as the next big franchise.

    Great review, Patrick.

    If you have any interest in seeing me mock their red carpet presentation for "Need for Speed":

    One of my favorite parts is when they compare Michael Keaton's role to be as great as Beetlejuice.

    1. Wow. I don't get it. I know people liked the movie more than me, but they're really falling all over themselves. It's odd to me that a large corporation like AMC is putting money behind what appears to just be a low-rent Access Hollywood disguising itself as being for hipsters.

      Also, thank you for bringing up Death Proof. When they were going on about the 'real cars' and 'real stunts,' my head was exploding for the same reason.

    2. I'm really over AMC Movie Talk. I could give a shit what their little panel of mother fuckers thinks is cool or isn't. I don't go to Starbucks and ask the people sipping mocha soy lattes on the patio what they think is cool and I think they may have more valid opinions than AMC Movie Talk. Wow, I didn't know I felt that way until I typed it.

    3. I know the feeling, Heath. A few years back Campea and others had a video podcast called "For Your Consideration" on Youtube. It was what it was, but listening to it you could choose to agree or ignore their comments. But now that AMC Theatres has hired (and backed) them to run a daily movie talk show, weekend mail bag (with honestly the worst questions asked of them) and special promotional videos, the whole thing has become a vapid commercial for their upcoming movies--even when they go out of their way to piss off a large chunk of their audience.

      They even do video reviews where the majority of them have to like the movie or it doesn't get posted, because AMC wants to make sure they sell tickets. The last girl who differered with them got fired (Man of Steel review). And listening to their opinions can sometimes be maddening because it goes against all common sense in the world.

      It's great though to hear their comments and then listen to F This Movie because (most of the time) it's the complete opposite opinions being stated but at least Patrick and company make sense, whether I agree or not.

      Here's another quick example of why I dislike them. Going against your own morals for the almighty dollar just makes me sick:

    4. One more thing. I mentioned this a few weeks ago but AMC Movie Talk has gone out of their way to get their show trending by asking their viewers to hashtag their questions to them on a daily basis. It's never worked. But you know what has trended three years in a row? FThisMovieFest.

      'nuff said.

  2. As an avid gamer in my youth, I have to wonder if anyone will ever make a decent to good video game-based movie. It seems like an impossible task. Apparently I can add this one to the long list of failed attempts.

    1. Did you like Mortal Kombat or Silent Hill? I think those are my two favorites right now.

    2. Call me crazy, but I think the original Street Fighter is a decent movie. Yes, it sags and deflates towards the end, but the first half is genuinely entertaining, with a lot of funny bits, and if you listen to the director's commentary, he sounds as though he was completely aware at the time of how ridiculous it was to be making a movie based on an arcade game, and had as much fun slyly mocking the whole venture as he could get away with.

    3. Have you read this piece on the making of that movie that ran on Polygon last week? It's a fascinating read and will give you a ton of insight into that movie:

    4. Thanks for the link. As an AV Club junkie, I'd already saved it to my Kindle, so that I may take my sweet time savoring every word, rather than skim through it on a monitor. That the film is a mess is an objective truth - I just think that for the first hour, it's a really entertaining and unique mess. :)

    5. I think the closest a video game-based movie has come to bringing me enjoyment was, indeed, the first Mortal Kombat movie. Of course, I was 10 or 11 when that movie came out, I think, so I was easily amused by just about everything. As I remember, the music was awesome and I dug some of the fight sequences.

  3. Wow this sounds as bad as I was expecting, though I kinda love that "My inbox is white hot" line.

    I don't think knowing it was a video game would have been much help with your understanding of the movie - unless the franchise has changed radically in the past few years that I haven't played them, it's always been a basic arcade (i.e. fun vs. accurate) racer with little to no story to speak of - why they even tied the movie to the game I have no idea. It's like they just looked at the game title and said, "This MUST also be a movie title!"

    I would have loved to hear that this was actually good, but not surprised! Thanks for taking another one for the team!

  4. I have not seen Breaking Bad, so when I saw the trailer for this - call me shallow if you like - my primary thought was, "can anyone really pull off a dashing leading man role with a forehead that enormous?!" I'm sure Paul is a fine actor and all, but, good lord, that vast expanse of skin makes the rest of his facial features look... compressed. :P

  5. I like The Chase. It's kind of rad.

    Also it was weird seeing it on video just a little while after the O.J. thing.