I think we’re at a point where films based on video games are dead-on-arrival. Sure there is a glimmer of hope for 2015’s Assassin’s Creed with Michael Fassbender and the proposed adaptation of The Last of Us produced by Sam Raimi, but if history tells us anything, it’s best to remain skeptical. Now, in comes Need for Speed, a star vehicle for Aaron Paul, fresh off the hit show Breaking Bad, which recently ended. Need for Speed is a racing game series published by EA that has been around since 1994. The film is directed by Scott Waugh, known for Act of Valor and it’s the screenwriting debut of George Gatins, who along with his brother, John Gatnis, shares a story credit.
The film follows Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), part-time mechanic and part-time street racer who takes part in a race that results in the death of his friend Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) as committed by Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a wealthy entrepreneur who just has it in for Tobey, so he ends up getting framed for Pete’s death and gets jailed for manslaughter. After two years, free from prison and shifting all his focus to revenge. What ensues is a cross-country drive to a race held by reclusive podcaster/host of an underground, high-end car race, Monarch (Michael Keaton). With him are his friends Joe Peck (Ramon Rodriguez), Finn (Rami Malek), Benny (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) and an associate from an old business connection, Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots).
Trying to sum up the film was exhausting, as the film drags along in such a way that in every other scene you ask yourself what the hell is going on and it just forces you to cruise along with it whether you like it or not. First big issue is that the film is way too long, riding at a full two hours and ten minutes, and with its slogging pace, you can’t help but tear the film apart at every possible point. The story is nonsensical, which would have been perfectly fine, but considering how serious the film is taking itself, I think it’s fair to criticize it’s stupid moments, and my goodness are there a lot of them.
One thing that was constantly bothering me was how the character of Benny seems to grab planes and helicopters out of nowhere, conveniently pulling up at just the right moment to help out Tobey. It is absurd, and to make it even stranger it doesn’t seem to be explained how it’s possible. If there was a line that explained how he has access to all these planes and helicopters, I don’t recall it. At one point, he has a helicopter from a news station, which happens to be connected and is put live on the air. How did he get that chopper? Did he steal it from the news station? Did he give it back to them? Why didn’t he get in trouble? How does he know how to fly all these different types of planes?! Give me a brake.
The writing is abysmal. Each character in the film is a character that we have seen hundreds of times before done hundreds of times better. I had to look up all the names for the summary because I couldn’t remember anyone after the film was over, a film like this shouldn’t be as unmemorable. The story is so predictable that at each and every turn, you can tell exactly where it’s going, even to the very end. The dialogue certainly doesn’t help either; it is incredibly dry, clichéd, and all without charm, personality or wit, and the very few attempts at humor fall completely flat. Unfortunately, I don’t think much could have been salvaged from the ludicrous story that offers nothing new or interesting.
This film is also a case of good actors trying to make the best of it with a bad script. Clearly, everyone was trying their best to make it work, but it just doesn’t. The chemistry is not there and the lack of good characterization prevents any connection to them. Aaron Paul, as much as I love the guy and the work he’s done on Breaking Bad, he just isn’t action lead material. He doesn’t have the presence and commanding charisma that is required of these kinds of films. He could make a great supporting character, but perhaps the script is mainly at fault since it did not give him much of an opportunity to really make the film his.
Shifting gears for a sec, I do want to say that there is some good in the film. For one, Michael Keaton is excellent; he is clearly having a blast, almost to a point where it seems like he’s in a completely different movie from everyone else. Regardless, the points where Keaton shows up were the only parts in the film that made me both happy and interested. Also, the racing sequences are excellently filmed and edited. There is hardly any shaky-cam, there is no constant quick-cut editing and more impressively, no CGI. Seeing the practical stunt work on the big screen was a refreshing experience, especially with the heavy reliance on CGI in many modern action films. The only problem I had with the racing scenes is that I felt no connection, no weight or anything worth investing in. I did not care enough about the characters to root for them in the races, and with so many races in the movie, it becomes less and less effective each time. Also, the film broke the rule of never reminding the audience of a much better film in your movie, by showing the 1968 classic, Bullitt, at a drive-in scene in the beginning of the film. There is a lot more I could pick at, but honestly, I don’t think this film is worth the effort.
Need for Speed is to be steered clear from. The few good things about the film cannot save the film from the slow pace, the dull script and lackluster performances. It’s the kind of film the early Fast & Furious films were like, before they got better. If you want dumb, muscle car action, I recommend the Fast Five and Six. The reason these films work over something like Need for Speed is because it has personality, it has charm, the cast work incredibly well together and it embraces the whatever-just-go-for-it attitude with its action set pieces, giving you that rush and excitement that you want. Ironically, despite the fact that Need for Speed is adapted from a videogame, it somehow manages to take away the one thing it really needed to succeed: fun. Frankly, the only ticket Need for Speed is worth receiving is a speeding ticket. So, in the end, unlike Maverick from Top Gun, I am NOT feeling the need.
Side Note: I apologize for some of the puns; I hope that didn’t get on your nerves. Anyway, I should say, I feel kind of bad for Aaron Paul. He’s clearly talented, but Bryan Cranston seems to be the one taking big roles, like in the upcoming blockbuster Godzilla. However, Aaron is set to play a supporting character in Ridley Scott’s Moses epic, Exodus, alongside Christian Bale. I also hear great things about his role in the indie drama Hellion, which premiered at Sundance a couple months ago. Maybe Need for Speed isn’t the right kind of movie to display Aaron Paul’s talent; perhaps one of the above mentioned films or maybe another will do so in the future.