Road Rage with Revenge
Nearly every scene of Need For Speed, the latest video game franchise turned Hollywood production and directed by Scott Waugh, takes place in a car. That’s not necessarily reason to scoff but it is a noticeable limitation, especially noticeable when characters aren’t confined to their comfortably menacing headshots through the windshield. It doesn’t take long to figure this out. Throughout this movie’s extended car chases, the dialogue that really matters is between the cars themselves. The actors, like the shadowy drivers in automobile advertisements, are merely props. The trading of tire screeching and engine revving, you quickly find, is the more important banter.
Really this is a feature length Ford Mustang commercial with a forced love connection and a lot of collateral damage. Aaron Paul, transitioning from his role on Breaking Bad, plays Tobey Marshall, an illegal street racer and mechanic who slowly growls his lines. He runs a repair garage with some well-connected friends and pays the bills with his earnings on Mount Kisco, New York’s arbitrary racetracks. Things are chummy until Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a former partner now professional driver, stirs up trouble. Recklessly high-speed racing down highways, against the current of oncoming traffic no less, Dino bumps the back of Tobey’s friend Pete (Harrisson Gilbertson) forcing him to flip into a fiery death. Dino then frames Tobey, who’s sent to jail for two years, vowing his revenge.
That’s the short of a very long opening to set the proverbial wheels in motion. Specifically, it allows Tobey to speed across the country in a rare Shelby Mustang to get even with Dino in California, where ex-racer turned web radio DJ Monarch (Michael Keaton) hosts a secretive high stakes race. Tobey however has to get there in under 45 hours to qualify. Breaking parole, and bringing Julia (Imogen Poots), the Mustang’s cute invested owner, along for the ride, Tobey gets assistance from his mechanics crew, notably from a plane-thieving pilot played by Scott Mescudi. He somehow hops across the country, navigating traffic and escape routes from the clouds.
This movie is based off the popular EA games franchise but it resembles more of Grand Theft Auto. As Tobey racks up mileage, so does the amount of civic destruction he has left in his path. This is not an important worry for a movie like this, but the lack of consequences turns any semblance of reality into its mimicking, virtual one. These men are invincible, immune to authorities and bullets. When they crash or run into trouble, it’s as though writer George Gatins just presses “Pause,” “Quit,” “Restart.” It makes the Fast and Furious series appear like the beacon of simple, star and Diesel fueled racing movies.
That’s the luxury in writing a movie based on the way teenagers recklessly, cathartically rotate their joysticks, never considering the flames behind or the red lights in front. Keaton, whose enigmatic, yellow spectacled DJ sponsors this death trap race, is probably the best part of the movie. He knows how ridiculous it is and embraces the preposterousness, spinning in his chair and yelling into his webcam. Pretty soon though, even his redundant racing commentary becomes the typical descriptive shtick. The race’s winner receives a nice cash prize and the keys to the losers’ cars. As the police, and their roadblocks, inevitably become involved, this promised bounty turns farcically hollow.
At over two hours long, it would seem necessary and certainly possible for Tobey to consider the consequences of his high-risk vocation, especially after spending time in jail, after putting countless lives in danger. But there is no contemplation about actions here. The movie is as strictly focused as Tobey’s raging pursuit, which isn’t so ethically easy to root for either. Waugh, known for directing his first film Act of Valor, which has some blatant product placement here, is primarily a stunt coordinator. Apparently all of the stunts committed in the movie were real. But it’s hard to tell the difference because everything about them feels false.