“Need for Speed” is kind of amazing in an anthropological way. It’s a film whose origins are weirdly connected, the cinematic DNA composed of so many different strands of pop culture. It’s a bastard by-product with inspirations collected from every corner of the entertainment industry.
First off it’s inspired by a video game. On its own, it probably never would have facilitated a big-screen adaptation, especially since its name is actually derived from a famous line in “Top Gun,” which almost immediately seems silly because that movie was about planes, not cars. But, hey, it’s catchy right?
Second, it’s a clone; “The Fast and the Furious” movies became big business, and studios were looking for product that follows the formula spectacularly. Third, it’s painfully derivative and borrows so heavily from other movies and TV shows that audiences will swear they’ve watched it before.
So, a movie based on a video game whose title was inspired by a movie copying another popular franchise. What are the odds this movie is going to be anything of value? The answer to that question is simple: Do you want to see a humorless Jesse Pinkman from “Breaking Bad” driving cars and watching things explode? If “yes,” go buy a ticket now.
Movies like “Need for Speed” are always going to be uphill battles for me. When you can see the stretch marks and scars from its hasty assembly—like a low-rent “Frankenstein” made of discarded leftovers—the whole thing takes a scientific turn. The movie becomes something to be dissected rather than enjoyed. I’m more interested in the blueprints than what’s happening onscreen. On a surface level, “Need for Speed” is a by-the-numbers movie about revenge and car racing. If they had ripped the title page off the script, re-titled it “The Fastest and the Furiousest” and cast Vin Diesel, I doubt anyone would have noticed.
Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a former racecar driver who has given up the high-octane life and settled into the exciting world of car restoration. A former rival shows up at his shop and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: Restore a classic mustang and take 25 percent of the sale price, which could go as high as $2 million. Tobey’s crew is made up of the world’s most handsome and ethnically diverse group of mechanics ever. It’s a United Colors of Benetton ad staged in a sweaty garage. Among this greasy supporting cast is a destined-to-die sidekick named “Little Pete” who might as well be called “Deadmeat,” based on his limited life expectancy. Seriously, they should have put a countdown timer on the screen the second he showed up with the words “time left on this Earth” at the bottom. It’s like someone took the concept of Cheddar Bob from “8-Mile” and made him an Abercrombie model.
After selling the car, Dino makes a wager with Tobey: Winner-takes-all, no-holds-barred street race where, of course, Cheddar Bob—err, I mean Little Pete dies horribly. Tobey goes to jail serving two years for vehicular shenanigans. Upon his release, he goes after Dino to make him pay for his part in Little Pete’s hysterical demise. What follows is a lot of cross-country road racing with some nice scenery, and the kind of over-the-top action that is a creative mandate for a movie like “Need for Speed.” Everything is hyper charged, super fast, and cars just don’t careen off the road, they explode in fireballs that would make a pyromaniac blush.
There’s really nothing offensive about “Need for Speed,” other than the lack of grit beneath its fingernails. I would never call “The Fast and The Furious” films grounded in reality, but it’s amazing how much more plausible the over-the-top car theatrics are when you add Vin Diesel’s gravely voice to the mix. Aaron Paul is a fine actor, but after five seasons of “Breaking Bad,” and watching him go the James Dean route, here he is kind of boring. The action scenes are well-choreographed but it’s been seen before.
I imagine there might be interest for “Top Gear”-loving car junkies, but I don’t know my crankshaft from my asphalt. For me, this was like watching the offspring of a hundred different ideas spit into a petri dish and then gestated by committee. The whole thing feels like a product. It’s cinematic spam that, while not completely indigestible, isn’t something anyone craves.
Need for Speed
Starring Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogene Poots
Directed by Scott Waugh