A film review by Craig J. Koban March 21, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 131 mins.


Aaron Paul as Tobey Marshall  /  Dominic Cooper as Dino Brewster  /  Imogen Poots as Julia  /  Scott Mescudi as Benny  /  Rami Malek as Finn  /  Ramón Rodríguez as Joe Peck  /  Harrison Gilbertson as Little Pete  /  Dakota Johnson as Anita  /  Michael Keaton as Monarch

Directed by Scott Waugh  /  Written by George Gatins and John Gatins


Sadly, this is not the long-awaited sequel for TOP GUN.  

Watching NEED FOR SPEED made me feel the need to never again wish to sit through and endure yet another woefully mediocre video game-to-film adaptation.  By my cursory Wikipedia search, there have been over 20 installments of the NEED FOR SPEED game franchise (it first launched by Electronic Arts in 1994), but I sincerely hope that we will not have to ever sit through 20 sequels to this film.  The fact that talented actors are all at the forefront here - desperately trying to do what they can with derivative, cornball, and hackneyed material - is a deeper level of shame to this film.  That, and NEED FOR SPEED is not even good auto-collision-racing porn.  

Of the aforementioned talent, NEED FOR SPEED stars Aaron Paul (a multiple Emmy winner for TV’s BREAKING BAD) playing Tobey, a rebellious street racer with a middle-finger-waving/don’t-care attitude that is having a difficult time keeping his auto body shop afloat.  An offer to help restore his business to its former glory comes in the form of Dino (Dominic Copper), who gives Tobey and his team a dream job to restore a prized Ford Mustang in hopes of selling it to a third party for millions of dollars.  After much work, Tobey’s team finishes the car, but during a rather reckless celebratory race (with the car sale’s money up for grabs), Tobey’s protégé, Pete (Harrison Gilberston) is killed, with the dastardly Dino behind it all…and fleeing the accident.  Poor Tobey essentially gets framed for the mishap and does time in jail, all while Dino mysteriously disappears and escapes prosecution. 



Predictably, Tobey has a thirst for vengeance when released two years later, but this does not involve a physical confrontation between the pair.  Instead, Tobey will gain revenge…on the streets (this is, after all, a car racing film). He decides to go mano-a-mano against Dino in an underground race known as “The DeLeon” that's organized by the secretive and enigmatic Monarch (Michael Keaton, injecting some zany energy into the proceedings).  First, though, Tobey must make it from New York to San Francisco in less than 48 hours in a car sponsored by an attractive British bombshell with a – yup – deep knowledge of muscle cars, Julia (Imogen Poots).  Of course, Julia demands that she rides shotgun all the way there, which leads to manufactured sexual tension between the pair.  Nonetheless, Tobey makes it to his destination, but is then dealt with another crushing blow that may cause him to forfeit his opportunity to race off against Dino. 

Ahhhhhhh…but of course it’s not that big of an obstacle, because films like NEED FOR SPEED exist to have the obligatory big race at the climax of the story.   The script for this film is a real knee-slapping hum-dinger for its mind-numbing, paint-by-numbers level of contrivances and glaring leaps in logic.  The script, for example, never really pains itself to give a valid rationale as to why Tobey is the one specifically sent to jail for Pete’s death, nor does it fully explain how a prominent public figure and businessman like Dino is able to escape the law and what must have been several witnesses during the disaster (oh wait, the script throws in a line “there were no witnesses that point to Dino being at the sight of the crash”…..riiiiggght).  Of course, this creates a reason for Tobey to seek comeuppance on the villain.  Equally silly is the character of the Monarch himself, who conducts uber clandestine webcasts of his DeLeon underground races.  We are informed that “no one knows who he is” despite the fact that he plasters his face in front of a camera and is clearly visible on the webcast.  How he’s not easily found and arrested is a head-scratching oddity.

One would hope, as a direct result of the film’s deep and obvious narrative shortcomings, for the actual car sequences to keep the film buoyantly alive.  NEED FOR SPEED was directed by Scott Waugh with a noble minded mission to abscond away from CGI as much as possible, and as far as the final product is concerned, he has succeeded here in his staunchly old school approach.  As refreshing as it is to see most scenes in the film shot with tangible cars in actual environments, Waugh has a nasty habit of shooting and editing the various chase scenes with too many micro-cuts, too much shaky cam hysterics, and a heavy preponderance of stylistic overkill (the completely pointless 3D upconvert here only further embellishes this).  It’s funny, but BULLITT is referenced in the film at one point (it plays on the background of a drive-in movie screen early on) and its classic example of chase sequence knew the value of editorial clarity and clean camera work.  Too many recent films – NEED FOR SPEED included – don’t understand this. 

This, alas, leaves me with the cast.  Aaron Paul is an actor of an uncommon intensity (as displayed in his TV work) and certainly is a performer that truly appears to be above this middling material.  The problem with Paul in NEED FOR SPEED is that he’s so creepily brooding and fidgety in the film that you kind of have to remind yourself that he’s playing the hero (that, and he plays the role as seriously as a heart attack when some levity would have been a welcome asset).  Dominic Cooper is stranded in a one-note villain role, but at least he seems to acknowledge the preposterous of the whole enterprise and swings for the fences with his portrayal of his vile, moustache-swirling baddie.  Keaton, as stated, brings an inviting hyperactive energy to the film, even though his work sets a far different tone from the rest of the story. 

One thing truly bothered me about NEED FOR SPEED: it’s cavalier attitude towards the inherent dangers and irresponsibility of street racing in general.  The story sets itself up to show the perils of illegal racing in having Pete horrifically die during one race in particular, but then the film revels in journeying with Tobey on a cross-country road odyssey – with blatant and thoughtless disregard to the law and innocent pedestrians – that’s supposed to thrill and entertain us.  I fully understand that films like NEED FOR SPEED don’t exist to become pieces of social commentary, but you can’t have a script that alternates between showing street racing as both deadly and exuberantly pleasurable at the same time.  I cry foul. 

One last thing:  I’m not one of those highbrow film critics that routinely dumps on video games as a lesser art form.  I’m an avid gamer.  I love video games.  Alas, I have to ask the question: Why can’t there be a decent and memorable film to be made from an existing video game property?  Seriously.  NEED FOR SPEED is among a long list of lackluster and cheaply disposable examples of poor video game adaptations.  Hell, it could have even modestly succeeded if it just embraced its laughable B-grade luridness with a tongue-in-cheek gusto.  No dice.  Perhaps the most scandalous aspect of NEED FOR SPEED is that – at a painful and unnecessary 130 minutes – it feels sluggishly slow and clunky for a film with the word “speed” in its title. 

  H O M E