Need for Speed review: might as well be based on a breakfast cereal

Need for Speed red light Aaron Paul Dominic Cooper

Thinks it’s poetical and epic, and the more dramatic it thinks it’s being, the more hilariously histrionic it all is.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s a Fast & Furious ripoff! No, wait, it’s based on a popular videogame!

Which one makes Need for Speed sound more junky and more calculated to trick audiences into parting with their hard-earned cash? Cuz: that one.

And if throwing away 2D dollars on this doesn’t thrill you enough, know that the 3D version was created in postproduction — which never, never looks good — as an extra bonus cash grab. If you want to feel like you’re driving a car in 3D, you could just go drive a car.

There’s no story and no characters in the Electronic Arts series of games this movie is “based on” — you could easily say this is “based on” the brand-name sneakers the protagonist wears. It could be “based on” a breakfast cereal, for all we can tell. The story and the characters had to be invented by the screenwriter, George Gatins, who once produced a short film called “My Wife Is Retarded.” (His brother, John Gatins, get a story credit, but clearly none of what he brought as a writer to films such as Real Steel and Flight managed to prevail.) It’s directed by Scott Waugh, who codirected the Navy recruitment ad masquerading as an action movie that was Act of Valor. So, if you’re imagining that Need for Speed looks like a car commercial and plays like it was written by a sniggering 12-year-old boy who thinks he’s being sophisticated, you would be spot on.

You can tell that Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul: Smashed, The Last House on the Left) is the Good Guy, because he’s blue-collar, just struggling to save his dad’s auto-body shop from the bank, man. You can tell that Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Captain America: The First Avenger) is the bad guy, because… well, he just is, okay? He wears a lot of black, so maybe that’s it. But he doesn’t do anything even remotely villainous until a solid hour into the film, unless offering Tobey an honest job souping up a famous racing car for a cool half a million dollars is now considered an evil act. We’re just supposed to accept that he rubs Tobey the wrong way, has since they went to high school together in small-town Mt. Kisco, New York, and we don’t need to know the reason, apparently. Is it that Dino has managed to be successful on the pro racing circuit and Tobey hasn’t? Cuz that would paint a pretty green tinge on that blue collar. (The only way the movie could have possibly increased the level of idiotic cheese is if Waugh let Cooper use his own British accent, instead of his very good but very fake American accent, while still supposedly being a kid from upstate New York. You know, following that Hollywood tradition in which the bad guys always have British accents.)

Anyway, kind sweet Anita (Dakota Johnson: The Five-Year Engagement, 21 Jump Street), sister to Tobey’s friend Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) is With Dino, so she’s either dumb as a post or Dino’s not such a bad guy. Or, wait… Could it be that she’s just a pawn of the script, which needs her to be an object of contention until she can discover something nasty about Dino… and then still not leave him until the precise moment that Tobey needs her to betray Dino? Yup, pretty much.

Anyway anyway, there’s much driving of fast cars, which is mucho macho not-at-all veiled dick-measuring between Dino and Tobey, and finally Dino does something bad, and then later there’s more driving and more dick-measuring. Tobey actually says, at one point, “We’ll settle this behind the wheel.” But that’s not even the best of the howlers in the dialogue. Poor Cooper — he’s about the only one I felt sorry for here — has to deliver an unintentionally hilarious line about a family who “made their money in the Industrial Revolution”; see aforementioned notation about imagining this is sophisticated stuff. (To Cooper’s credit, he manages this without cracking up and while still maintaining his villainous scowl.)

No, wait: I feel bad for Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment, The Look of Love), too. She’s here as the “surprising” Julia, who works for the guy who owns that famous racing car that Tobey souped up. She’s meant to be surprising because she’s a mere girl who knows about cars. I mean, what is this, science fiction?! Much more surprising is that when Tobey — who’s just gotten out of prison after the villainous thing that Dino did that he should have gone to prison for, except: dumbest cops ever screwed it up — calls up the guy who owns that multimillion-dollar car and asks to borrow it so he can drive it across the country to California to participate in a secret race in which he plans to kick Dino’s ass, the guy is all, “Why certainly!” Cuz that would happen. (Julia is along to keep an eye on the car, and to continue being surprising in not being a delicate flower, until suddenly she’s a delicate flower, just like a girl.)

Oh god, it gets better! Very early on, someone says, “Benny is in the Cessna,” which sounds like a code, right? Wrong! Benny (Scott Mescudi) is one of Tobey’s gang, and he has access to aircraft — light planes, helicopters — literally everywhere he goes. This is so he can keep an eye on the roads ahead when that will help Tobey in perpetrating his vehicular mayhem. (For a “good guy,” the level of insurance payouts that Tobey is responsible for is fairly outrageous.) But what it really means is that Need for Speed is all about mayhem not only on the ground but in the air, too. The NTSB and DHS would be having fits over what’s happening here. There will be orange alerts over half the lower 48 after what we witness here. It’s fun!

The only really good thing here is Michael Keaton (RoboCop, The Other Guys) as a guy who runs a sort of streaming talk show about illegal racing, and who offers a running commentary on much of the action. (He’s the one who organizes the secret race in California, and then is somehow able to do a play-by-play as if he’s seeing the same aerial footage of if that we get to see, which he can’t be seeing, of course.) Keaton is electric, as he always is, but he doesn’t have any interaction with anyone else: he could have sent in his scenes via YouTube and we’d barely notice the difference. If the movie could have at least thrown Keaton and Cooper into a room together, that might have been something. But it’s almost as if Keaton wanted to keep his exposure to this turkey to an absolute minimum.

He is not to be blamed for this. Need for Speed is crammed with stilted exposition, terrible poeticism, and people behaving stupidly. It thinks it’s epic, and the more dramatic and serious it thinks it’s being, the more hilariously histrionic it all is. But still not hilarious enough, alas.

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