Rush, a movie about a bitter rivalry and competition between two F1 racers, was one of the very best movies of last year. Directed by Ron Howard, Rush knew that the key to its success was not in the race scenes themselves but in the face-to-face scenes in between the action. By making the characters real and complex, Rush’s action sequences were all the more gripping and pivotal.
Need for Speed, adapted from the long-running racing game series by Electronic Arts, spends about as much time with its characters in between action sequences, but fills it with trite dialogue, fruitless plot developments, and characters that make bone-headed decisions far more frequently than smart ones.
For an adaptation of a video game series with barely any complete characters, Need for Speed is better than it has any right to be. It’s not great, but considering how little there was to work with beyond vague concepts of street racing and fleeing from cop cars, it’s a miracle the movie functions as well as it does.
A large part of that is due to the acting. What moronic semblance of a story there is is made barely believable by the cast, including Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, and Imogen Poots. None of them act as if the movie is beneath them and it does Need for Speed wonders.
Paul plays Toby, a mechanic and former race car driver who grew up in the same town as the hugely successful racer Dino (Cooper), who also stole Toby’s girlfriend. After Toby and his friend Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) are goaded into a race with Dino, Pete ends up dead, Dino flees and lies about having been there, and Toby is sent to prison for manslaughter. When Toby gets out, the first thing he does (naturally) is set his sights on winning an elite racing competition run and paid for by a reclusive former racer (Michael Keaton), that Dino’s also in.
Keaton is absolutely fantastic and the best thing about Need for Speed. He chews his lines with glee and makes the movie perk up every time he interjects. Paul is also good as a hero who’s impossible not to root for. Anyone who’s watched an episode of Breaking Bad definitely won’t shake the image of Jesse Pinkman, but Paul’s performance does an adequate job of rolling with that fact.
Despite all its stupidity, the movie was clearly made by people who knew their audiences. Not only do many of the racing scenes capture both the white-knuckled gameplay of the video games and the gut-dropping rush of thrilling driving, the references to classic car-chase movies are plentiful. (Rebel without a Cause, Bullitt, The French Connection, Smokey and the Bandit, and Speed all get shout-outs.)
Need for Speed is composed of great parts (Michael Keaton, exciting racing and stuntwork) and awful parts (stupid characters, preposterous plot). As a result, the movie balances out, ultimately neither amazing nor terrible. It’s can’t hold a match to any of the Fast & Furious movies, but as a movie adapted from the Need for Speed video games, it could’ve been much worse.
After the effective licencing of first The LEGO Movie and now Need for Speed, 2014 could prove to be an interesting year for licenced adaptations. At least, until Transformers: Age of Extinction arrives.