Need for Speed

Having been forced into partnership with Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) in order to save his family’s garage business, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) finds himself framed for a manslaughter he didn’t commit. When he is released from prison two years later, Marshall gathers his old team — including Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), Benny (Scott Mescudi) and Finn (Rami Malek) — and sets off to exact his revenge. The plan is to use the car that started it all (a 900hp Shelby Mustang worked on by Tobey and sold by Dino to a Brit by the name of Madden) to best Brewster in the De Leon, a high-stakes street race where the winner really does take all — all the other cars, that is. First, however, they must convince host Monarch that they are worthy of a place in the competition, a task that is made increasingly difficult by Brewster, who has offered millions of dollars to anyone who can stop Marshall from reaching San Francisco, and Madden’s own daughter, Julia (Imogen Poots), who insists on coming along for the ride.

Here’s a No Brainer worthy of EE frontman Kevin Bacon: based on the most successful racing game in the world, with blockbusting competitors Fast And Furious out of the race and in a landscape where Top Gear is one of the most-watched shows on television, Need For Speed had the odds stacked overwhelmingly in its favour. It’s unfortunate, then, that director Scott Waugh and writers George and John Gatins have squandered such an incredible opportunity with a film that — for want of a better analogy — underperforms in the extreme. Surprisingly for a film based on a video game with no discernible plot and very little in the way of characters, there is an awful lot of backstory to get through as motives and relationships are established and the plot set in motion. This, you might point out, is surely no bad thing, but here twenty minutes of exposition amounts to little more than “he likes her but she likes him, and they all love cars”.

Aaron Paul, who apparently warrants something of a cult following through his involvement in Breaking Bad, is of very little impact here as Tobey Marshall. Continuing the trend for boy-racers with old-man names (let’s not forget that the bad-ass stars of Fast And Furious go by the names of Dominic and Brian), Tobey sleepwalks from practical effect to practical effect — and if you’ve watched any interview with Paul you’ll be well aware that the film uses practical effects over VFX – waxing lyrical about always going back for other racers, usually having just overtaken a few dozen burning wrecks in the race before. Cooper isn’t any more memorable as Dino, largely because he isn’t given much more to do than wear black and look contemptible. The only actors that make any sort of impression — good or bad – are Malek, who as usual seems to have been beamed down from not just another movie, but another planet; Poots, the electric-eyed and British-accented broker-turned-law-breaker; and Michael Keaton, who clearly used all of his good ideas on a similar character in RoboCop.

It’s a shame to keep comparing Need For Speed to Fast And Furious, but it is arguably inevitable. Whereas the Fast films earned their stripes as racing films before segueing almost seemlessly into more traditional action-adventure territory, Need For Speed grinds its gears — and skips a few more — in its hurry to make up ground. From their relatively humble beginnings, competing in small-town drag races and struggling to make ends meet at the garage, our heroes are suddenly being chased through the desert by professional racers, police helicopters and bounty hunters. The collateral damage is insane, and when Benny shows up in an Apache helicopter to save them from gun-totting hillbillies it really doesn’t matter whether the effects are practical or computer generated, the events they depict just aren’t believable. Speaking of the effects, and in particular the races themselves, the stunt-work is decidedly unremarkable. The De Leon is like a cut-price podrace, complete with cringe-worthy commentary, colourful crashes and incredibly confusing stakes but wholly absent of vision or excitement.

Need For Speed lacks the simple joys of the gaming franchise it’s based on, the silly spectacle of Fast Five and the petrol-headed tomfoolery of Top Gear. It may have the horse-power, but what Waugh’s film was really in need of were compelling characters, an interesting story and dialogue you didn’t wish they’d drowned out in post-production. Then it might — just might – have been a No Brainer after all.

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