All words: Ross Bonaime
It took the Fast & Furious franchise a decade to really figure out what it needed to be: a ridiculous action franchise series with crazy characters and crazier action. That realization turned the series into basically Ocean’s 11 with cars. Need For Speed, based on the incredibly popular video game series, seems very much like the F&F franchise on the surface, yet takes itself far more seriously, to its detriment.
Aaron Paul plays Tobey Marshall, Need For Speed’s low-voiced, brooding driver with a grudge that makes him feel the titular need. Tobey’s father has recently died, leaving him in charge of the Marshall garage, which is quickly going under. To pay the bills, Tobey is hired by Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) – a wealthy car enthusiast and the new boyfriend of Tobey’s ex – to work on a one-of-a-kind Ford Mustang. When Dino, Tobey and Tobey’s friend Little Pete race against each other, the incident lands Tobey in jail for two years. When he escapes, he immediately works on getting to a race across the country that would help him save his father’s garage, seek revenge for his prison sentence, and prove he’s better than Dino once and for all.
While for the most part car racing films focus on a series of smaller races, Need for Speed’s strength comes in the film’s second act based around Tobey driving from New York to San Francisco in a little under two days. He reunites his driving team, now with Imogen Poots’ car enthusiast Julia Maddon, for what is basically their race to another race. This cross-country road trip has the group running from the cops from coast to coast, leading to action sequences in major cities and landmarks that are more practical, likely due to director Scott Waugh’s background as a stunt coordinator.
These exciting chases from the cops – for the most part the only think linking this to the games – work incredibly well, while the seriousness of the goal for Tobey holds the film back. For some reason, Aaron Paul, who has been a great source of comedic relief on Breaking Bad, is given a mostly humorless role in the lead. However Paul’s performance does make the character work better than it should, especially when he’s forced to do ridiculous things and say silly lines such as “Anita, I need a car,” completely seriously.
What Tobey lacks in personality, a mostly strong supporting cast makes up for it. Poots is thrown in as a love interest, but she’s quite fun to watch and is much more than just a pretty face. Tobey’s team includes Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi and Rami Malek, who both bring some levity into the race, but Ramon Rodriguez’s addition to the team boils down to basically supplying cars with gas and little else.
Need for Speed’s directing in the action scenes supplies the film with dumb fun, but the flaws within the script bring down the entire endeavor. Co-written by John and George Gatlin, Need for Speed struggles under far too much melodrama and unnecessary amount of character motivations. The script is also filled with things that just don’t make sense, like why an auto body shop is struggling to pay bills, yet clearly has thousands of dollars to use in illegal racing. Or why a villain can kill a character in a car race and be viewed as a villain, yet the hero can most definitely kill cops in accidents – cops who have every reason to be chasing the hero – yet can still come off as heroes.
Need for Speed succeeds in being a fun action film, yet it has problems with the script and its focus on a too-serious story. Still, it doesn’t completely ruin the experience and, hey, it took Fast & Furious ten years to get it right.