There aren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe how asinine Need for Speed is. A brain-dead knock-off of the Fast and the Furious franchise, Need for Speed doesn’t merely defy the laws of coherence and sanity; it spits and urinates on them. The press notes may claim that the movie was directed by Scott Waugh and written by George & John Gatins but it may as well have been a troupe of headless clowns on pogo sticks. It goes without saying that people don’t watch movies about fast cars for their awards-caliber acting and socio-political themes; they want to check their brains at the door and enjoy thrilling action scenes with a simple plot to hold it together. Yet the filmmakers’ breathtaking ineptness at crafting effective thrills and its preposterous, cliché-ridden story ensure that anyone with a brain will be scrambling for the exits in search of them.
Aaron Paul, who really needs to fire his agent, plays Tobey Marshall, a grease monkey who was once, as legend had it, primed for glory on the Indy 500 circuit. But after his father’s death, he ended up inheriting the family garage and all its debts. To make ends meet, Tobey participates in underground races alongside teammates Benny (Scott Mescundi a.k.a. Kid Cudi), Joe (Ramon Rodriguez) and Finn (Rami Malek) i.e. the funny token black guy, the silent brooding Hispanic guy, and the computer wiz weirdo. When old enemy Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper – fulfilling the British bad guy trope) offers Tobey and team $500k to complete work on a Mustang owned by Carol Shelby, Tobey accepts because he needs the money.
The finished car is a revelation and Dino sells it for $3 million to a British magnate whose assistant Julia is played by Imogen Poots (cast here in the manic pixie dream girl role). Since Tobey has a habit of gloating about his racing prowess, an annoyed Dino challenges him to a race. If he wins, he gets to take the entire $3 million; if he loses, he gets nothing. Naturally, bone-headed Tobey accepts the offer. Predictably, bad shit goes down. Hilariously, he ends up in prison for two years. Consumed with rage, he swears vengeance on Dino the best way he knows how – by taking him on in another high-stakes race! Yea, because that really worked out well the last time!
To make this race – a legendary underground one hosted by a cartoonish hermit named Monarch (Michael Keaton) – Tobey has to first drive from New York to California in less than 48 hours, thereby breaking parole. In the process, he and his cronies make a mockery of a hundred laws, deliberately destroy property in over 25 states, and endanger the lives of thousands of innocent civilians. Since the Mustang, the very car that got him in trouble in the first place, is the only car he wants to drive, its British owner mandates that Tobey be accompanied on this cross-country trip by Julia – for insurances purposes. Apparently, the presence of a manic pixie dream girl should be enough to prevent a revenge-driven, sociopathic felon from destroying your three million dollar Mustang.
A racing movie doesn’t need to be high art to be deemed successful. Last year’s dynamic drama Rush and the vastly enjoyable Fast and the Furious 6 are examples of racing movies that were smart, sexy and exciting. A seamless balance of high-octane action sequences with appealing characters and a half-way decent story goes a long way in allowing audiences to expand their propensity for suspending disbelief. Without that balance, there’s nothing to hold our interest, and that’s primarily where Need for Speed sputters.
Waugh, who previously directed the military propaganda piece Act of Valor, knows how to make a car look good but he’s less successful in sustaining tension. The races are noisy, chaotic and cool to look at but memorable they’re not. He’s fares worse with staging character moments. Whatever drama the cliché-ridden script housed is sucked dry by the lifeless direction and pacing. As such, whenever a car isn’t on-screen, the movie screeches to a halt. The result is a two hour movie that feels like a two-and-a-half hour one.
It’s bad enough that the film is a mess of pacing and cohesive action but is it asking too much to create protagonists who have an iota of a moral compass? With all the damage and grand theft auto that Tobey and gang commit on their way to the race, there’s a valid argument for Dino, moustache twirling antics included, being the sanest and most mature individual in the movie. Kid Codi’s Benny character in particular is the biggest culprit. In his quest to help Tobey, this guy not only steals cars but also airplanes, radio helicopters and military cargo flights. I’m not asking for detailed explanations here but how about some logic?
Even Paul, who is coming off one of the most critically acclaimed shows in television history, misses the mark. Though he brings heft and some needed depth to Tobey, the level of seriousness he plays the role falls wildly out of place in a movie where characters strip naked in malls for no apparent reason than to bully laughs out of the audience. Similarly, both Poots and Cooper are wasted playing stock characters. The only actor with an understanding for what type of movie he’s in is Keaton. As the underground race host, the veteran dials it up to 11 – he’s witty, exciting and fun to watch; in short, everything this movie isn’t.