Need for Speed is awful. And amazing. There’s a very fine line between bad movies, intentionally bad yet enjoyable movies and unintentionally bad yet hilarious movies, and Need for Speed seems to fall right slap-bang in the middle of all this. For every satisfyingly cheesy line or plot-point, there’s a woefully executed moment or joke. And yet, I’d still recommend checking the film out.
Let’s back up a bit – Need for Speed is an adaptation of EA’s flaghsip racing game series, although not of any one title in particular. It’s hard to create a straight adaptation from a series whose only constant is the presence of cars, yet NFS fans will find references throughout the film from the different games. Most notably, there are multiple Hot Pursuit-style police car chases, the presence of low-flying helicopters amongst racers and plenty of underground racing scenes.
However, director Scott Waugh also recalls the feel of the games through the visual style itself. Cities hum with HDR photography, while in races the camera frequently swivels from our protagonist driving the car into exciting POV shots that would not look out of place in any Need for Speed title.
The plot is as cliche-ridden as they come. Aaron Paul is Tobey Marshall, a mechanic and young racing prodigy who is hired by his old inexplicably evil rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), to fix up a classic Mustang for sale to a millionaire, represented by Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots). Despite the job and sale going through as planned, Dino’s inferiority complex causes him to challenge Tobey to a supercar race through traffic, ultimately running one of his friends off the road and killing him, in one of the most obvious plot points of all time which is so over-the-top in execution it becomes absolutely hilarious. Tobey is framed, spends time in jail, and upon his release makes it his mission in life to get revenge on Dino by beating him in the prestigious and mysterious DeLeon race. This involves a cross-country trip from one end of America to the other in a Mustang, much romancing of Imogen Poots, and a heap of clunky ‘humorous’ scenes from Tobey’s mechanic friends.
Aaron Paul is a great actor, as anyone who has seen Breaking Bad will attest, but he almost seems too good for the role here. His efforts to realistically express Tobey’s anguish and conflict become incongruous with the dumb-action tone of the rest of the film. More appropriate is Michael Keaton as ‘Monarch’, a millionaire radio DJ who runs the DeLeon. He hams it up with aplomb, even if it looks like the production could only afford him for the day, with all of his scenes shot within the same small radio set. However, the story really only exists to provide one flimsy excuse for an action scene after another. At one point, a gripping police car chase through the city is instigated by Tobey being unwilling to just re-park his car around a corner.
Yet, the car stunts and chase sequences are the best thing about the film by far. Most of the stunts and effects seem to have been accomplished practically, and there’s a real old-school feel to the races as they drift through teeth-grittingly tight corners or drive terrifyingly fast straight into oncoming traffic. Crashes hit hard, leaps off ramps impress and the feeling of speed is constant, all without having to introduce anything gimmicky like a nitro-booster. When there is a CGI effect, like fire or smoke, it sticks out like a sore thumb, but the majority of the action is well shot, paced and adrenaline-pumping.
Need for Speed is a dumb action movie, but in this case that’s not an insult. It’s how a dumb action movie should be produced. It’s not insulting to the viewer’s intelligence, like the Transformers movies or Battleship, or relies purely on an assault on the senses with CGI. Instead, audiences get a cheesy and predictable, yet self-aware action movie that has some fantastic stunt work and exciting action. I had a lot of fun watching Need for Speed, and if you have any interest in the games or racing, I expect you will too.