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Review: Need for Speed

March 14, 2014

By John Corrado

** (out of 4)

Need for Speed Poster

The car chases in Need for Speed are often cool, and pretty much anyone who ever had fun spinning Hot Wheels cars around a plastic racetrack as a kid is sure to get some enjoyment out of watching these extended sequences.

Now if only even half as much effort had been put into things like plot or character development, both of which are either nonexistent or overly simplistic, then maybe Need for Speed would have truly risen above its video game origins.  The film opens today, courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.

At the beginning of Need for Speed, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is struggling to pay the bills at his auto shop.  But when a street race with wealthy rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) ends in the death of his colleague Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), Tobey is framed and left to take the fall.  Jump ahead two years and he is released from prison with revenge on his mind, determined to compete against Dino at the famed De Leon, a cross country race run by the mysterious Monarch (Michael Keaton).

With help from the rich Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), who gets him the classic Ford Mustang that he helped repair before going to jail, and the daredevil Benny (Scott Mescudi) who watches the road from a helicopter, Tobey once again takes to the streets.  This includes outrunning numerous police cars so that he can prove his innocence in the race, as the film speeds towards a predictable conclusion.

But this plot is superfluous to the action, and is only there as a loose frame for the car chases to hang on, which are probably the only reason why the target audience is going to buy a ticket.  Before the screening I attended, they were playing a loop of “behind the scenes” featurettes showing the work that went into building shells of expensive cars around souped up engines that could handle the stunts and withstand high speeds.  Director Scott Waugh only used practical special effects, and the fact that what we see onscreen was actually done onset is impressive, adding a visceral feeling to many of the set pieces.  At times the effect is admittedly spectacular.

Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots are both talented actors, but there isn’t really much for them to work with in the thinly scripted Need for Speed.  Backstories are shady at best, and even a possible romantic subplot between them is never developed past the point of a simple teen fantasy.  The image of their car dangling from a helicopter is pretty cool, but this leads to a midair argument about who has bluer eyes that is just unintentionally laughable and seems ripe for parody.

The film threatens to become farce when Tobey’s buddy Finn (Rami Malek) quits his boring desk job by strutting through the office naked for no apparent reason, and the scene only provides snickers because of how random and out of place the whole thing feels.  There is even a twerking joke during the credits that already makes the film feel a little dated.

Although I’m sure everyone had a blast behind the scenes and many of the car chases do accelerate the film, there just isn’t enough of a coherent story or believable character development to truly feel the need for a big screen adaptation of Need for Speed.  But the intentions behind the film seem sincere, and if all you’re looking for are cool car stunts and cheap thrills, then the movie delivers exactly what fans of the video game are looking for.  Just don’t expect much feeling behind the muscle.

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