When one of the most adrenaline-pumping sequences in a movie like Need for Speed is a car getting refueled with gas, something has gone very, very wrong. I’m not a loyal fan of the Fast and the Furious franchise, but this video game adaptation is a Carfax-verified lemon in comparison. There is indeed a need for speed in Need for Speed (at 130 minutes it’s a plodding, patronizing practice in patience), and also a need for narrative structure, human dialogue, better characters, and a few of the other fundamental elements of an actual film. All things considered, it was probably just a terrible idea to begin with.
Director: Scott Waugh
Producers: John Gatins, Patrick O’Brien, Mark Sourian
Writers: George Gatins, John Gatins
Cinematographer: Shane Hurlbut
Editors: Paul Rubell, Scott Waugh
Music: Nathan Furst
Cast: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Harrison Gilbertson, Dakota Johnson, Michael Keaton
US Theatrical Release: March 14, 2014
US Distributor: DreamWorks
Let’s start where the movie ends: predictably happy. As an adaptation of a video game that literally has no human characters, this is the first problem and the one that possibly undermines the entire effort. Most video games—from Super Mario Bros. to the Resident Evil, Lara Croft, and Grand Theft Auto series—are based on characters and narratives that lend themselves easily to film adaptations. The characters in the Need for Speed video game franchise are unmanned exotic sports cars; the narrative is a series of unrelated street races in unnamed locations, occasionally peppered by a police chase. This leaves a screenwriter with literally a blank canvas from which to build a screenplay, and the most paper-thin of background information from which to draw inspiration. In the worst case scenario, the end result is a meaningless plot with a predictably happy ending. Need for Speed is that worst case scenario.
Surprisingly, the driver at the wheel of the screenplay is John Gatins, who received an Oscar nomination just two years ago for Flight. Here he’s joined by a backseat driver in his brother George, and together with director Scott Waugh they fail to ever get this dud across the finish line. The story begins in Mount Kisco, NY, a slice of Americana with an unexplained race car driving tradition (even the local drive-in movie theater is showing Bullitt). Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”, but also unappreciated in James Ponsoldt’s Smashed) is the town’s legend in waiting, the namesake mechanic of Marshall Motors who has never had the right car or the right opportunity to achieve his racing potential. His boyhood rival, Dino Brewster (a slithery Dominic Cooper), rose to national racing heights before returning to Mt. Kisco with a proposition for Tobey that ultimately leads to a fatal racing accident, a wrongful conviction, and a cross-country road trip of revenge that’s meant to carry the rest of the movie but is in fact pointless, manufactured drama that rivals anything reality television churns out these days.
A screenplay resembling road kill on paper won’t automatically doom a movie about fast cars, but the supporting characters and even the car chase scenes do little to remedy the situation. The cast tries desperately to inject human emotion into the plot (Aaron Paul acts to the point of exhaustion and rapper Kid Cudi demonstrates impressive comedic chops), but the idea of character development in Need for Speed is exemplified by one of Tobey’s crew members inexplicably stripping nude and prancing out of his corporate workplace. Or consider the character of Monarch, an enigmatic illegal race organizer who operates out of a seemingly celestial bunker/studio/command center and who, played by Michael Keaton, is the most insufferable race commentator on screen since the pod race announcers in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. As you can imagine, the horrifying introduction of romance into Need for Speed only makes the shallowness of the characters more glaringly obvious.
I realize it’s a lot to ask of this movie to please anyone other than its target audiences: car enthusiasts and fans of the video game. But even in this regard Need for Speed is only marginally successful. For sports car enthusiasts I suppose it’s worth the price of admission if you can’t wait for next year’s auto show, but the moments with the machines are frenetic and few in number. That said, despite making pathetic use of 3D (truly a colossal waste of post-production money here), the car-mounted cameras provide some uniquely game-like points of view, and the crashes are nothing short of spectacular. Most of the classic Need for Speed game environments are also brought vividly to life (the pastureland race, the coastline race, the city race, the desert race, etc.), and the ever-threatening police sirens and chatter are very true to the game’s identity.
But why sit through 130 minutes of drama and romance to see a couple of car races? If that’s what you’re looking for, Ron Howard’s recent Rush provides the same action with a much more compelling backstory. And as tiresome as it’s become after 13 years, at least the Fast and the Furious franchise has developed a sense of self-aware irony, and has grounded its high-concept story in a character-rich criminal underworld. Ultimately, Need for Speed is competing with its source material, and fails both as a film and as an enriching video game experience. The eye-popping graphics of gaming consoles in 2014 approximate much of what can be seen here, and the video game is loads more fun because it doesn’t tie you to an empty storyline where you have to get the girl or live up to your family name. In the video game, you can crash and burn and start over with no emotional investment—it’s the reason Need for Speed is the most successful racing series of all time, and the reason Need for Speed is doomed as an attempted movie adaptation before it gets out of first gear.