Monday, March 17, 2014
Review: Need for Speed
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 know...watch 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.