Friday, March 21, 2014

"Need For Speed" Review: Your Mileage Will Vary Greatly With This High Octane, Low Brow Videogame Adaptation

Whether or not you enjoy Need For Speed isn't dependent on whether or not you enjoy good movies or even have any sort of reverence for its source material, which itself isn't really what most would consider a good match with the more narrative focused film format. No, your enjoyment level will be entirely based on whether or not you like to slum it and have a good laugh at the expense of countless man hours and excessive amounts of money spent on a project doomed to failure even before it got off the starting line.

Typical criticisms such as bland, cardboard cut out characterizations, poor and extremely formulaic plotting or baffling and sometimes outright bizarre action set pieces are all completely valid shots to take at this film. However, the film isn't even worthy of taking the time needed to point out how forced and seemingly unecessary all of its elaborate racing sequences are or how bereft it is of even a hint of a human element that would challenge us to care for just one second about the fates for any of its generic characters. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: Arclight Pasadena
Time:7:10 pm, March 15, 2014       
Projector Type: Digital 2D         
Film Rating: PG-13           
Film Runtime: 2 hr 10 min    
Studio: Dreamworks

Loves: Nothing here at all
Likes: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, the Need For Speed videogame
Neutral: Films based on videogames
Hates: Films based on videogames based on racing
Looking for cool car stunts and races?: Stick with the far superior Fast & Furious films

The people who made Need For Speed (henceforth known as NFS) clearly didn't care enough to provide anything to make any of it matter, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise if we don't want to take the time to explain why it doesn't matter itself, or even provide a proper synopsis in this case. Such is the dilemma of a film reviewer though, as that is what you have come here for and as painful as it is to recollect all the bumps and bruises inflicted by the cinematic travesty that is NFS, that is what you shall get.

Generally speaking, even the worst films with the worst scripts can be helped by the actors. Actors have a special talent for taking something and making it work despite all its glaring flaws (Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman being in the top tier of actors who can accomplish this). Aaron Paul is a great actor, well...let's rephrase that for a second. He is an actor who was great on a little television show, you may have heard of it, called Breaking Bad. Watching Paul transform from a punk drug dealer to the complex and morally confused human being with a conscious as we saw at the end of the series was some of the best acting ever put on screen, period.

So, its with great sorrow to report that he was unable to pull a rabbit out of his hat and show us something we haven't already seen from him over the past 5 years. Whether it is difficult to shake off the acting tendencies playing a single character for that amount of time puts on an actor or a script that was likely void of any sort of character depth for him to really sink his teeth into, watching Paul go through the motions in NFS as Tobey Marshall, your every day guy who is really good at racing, is just about as painful for us as it was for Jesse to standby and watch Mr. White corrupt him at every turn.

It's not so much that his performance is lacking, especially considering his performance is one of the few bright spots in this dimly lit film, its that he is still playing Jesse and feels stuck there. If his performance here proves one thing, it is that Paul is very good at playing characters with a haunted past who when frustrated and faced with insurmountable odds is able to scowl and raise that one eyebrow towards the camera on demand every single time. You can almost make a drinking game out of how many times the young actor reverts back to that single expression throughout the film's bloated 2 hour plus runtime.

Now if he got off easy, which he really didn't, imagine the Oscar caliber performances put in by the rest of the cast. Jesse's, er....Tobey's crew is this diverse group of guys who have absolutely zero distinct character traits or personalities despite perhaps being either the guy who flies, the guy who refuels while driving, the guy who drives the truck and the guy who will eventually die to provide the much needed revenge plot that drives all films of this type. Seriously, you will be hard pressed to remember any of their names by the time the film is over let alone what their contribution was to anything other than just being around. Alright, the flying guy does some stuff, but it's all stupid so it doesn't really count.

The single female in the film (which means she is of course the unneeded object of romance in the film) is Imogen Poots, who isn't a horrible actor, she just likes to appear that way. If Tobey's crew were near useless for the duration of the film, imagine how much she contributed to the overall package. Poots tries real hard to make an impression and she sort of succeeds, but in the wrong way. By the time she is hanging out a car racing down a highway just to prove she can do something other than sit in the passengers seat, it is more than apparent that neither the character nor Poots herself have anything worthwhile to add to the proceedings. Oh, and just you wait for the scene between Paul and Poots where they argue over who has the bluest eyes...seriously, that happens.

That leaves us with the villain of the film played by Dominic Cooper. Aside from the fact that he has no real motivation to be a villain other than being a total douche bag (if he would have just taken the money and parted ways with Tobey then nothing would have happened), he makes for a very poor antagonist who seems as sinister as some rich kid with a huge bankroll. Cooper can be a good (Captain America) or great (The Devil's Double) actor, but here he just seems to be more interested in getting behind the wheel of a few imports as opposed to being actually invested in the film or his character. Oh, Michael Keaton shows up as well, but judging from how disconnected he is from the events of the film, he likely didn't know what movie he was shooting his scenes for and just wanted a quick paycheck.

Where there are paper thin characters there is almost always a paper thin story, and that goes double for a videogame-to-film conversion and triple when that videogame is about racing. While some of the more notable entries into the long running NFS game franchise amusingly tried to infuse their racing shenanigans with some sort of story, the film version is somehow even worse in comparison. A simple premise of a racer working up the ladder to compete in some mythic race tournament would have been fine, but no. We had to have the oh-so-tired revenge plot thrown in along with a very undercooked romance that has no real basis in any sort of reality.

What's worse is that the revenge plot is tied to this ridiculous secret race tournament called the De Leon that is put together by Michael Keaton who chooses drivers to compete in it based solely on how much trouble they can get into and out of from watching Youtube clips of their stupidity. The race itself makes no sense as its winner-takes-all rules format clashes with the fact that nearly all the cars are trashed during the race and all the drivers are likely hauled off to prison for a very long time. Even the winner gets trapped by the law enforcement because the finish line is a dead end facing a cliff into the ocean. Who would ever want to compete in this thing?

Oh, and to add insult on to injury, this idea that Keaton's race guru character is some sort of mythical untouchable figure that no one knows, news flash, you aren't that secret when you live stream your face all over the internet dude! Why haven't the police hunted down and arrested this guy? If the police are willing to go to war on the highways with the racers themselves, why not go after the source? Like most everything in this movie, it makes zero sense.

What about the racing and the cars? Those are worth at least the price of admission right? Sadly, no. As far as the one category the film should nail, NFS comes up sorely lacking regardless of any problems with its story or lack thereof. The car chases and races themselves are technically impressive with most of the stunts done real and very little noticeable CGI used which makes them at the very least easy to appreciate from a purely aesthetic point of view. But there is no tension, no reason to get on the edge of our seats when cars go whizzing through a crowded city street at over a hundred miles per hour, fly off the edge of a cliff or have an entire army of police willing to use their vehicles as weapons to stop an illegal street race.

As crazy as it sounds, if you want a movie that has good action and tons of good car porn then you should stick with the much superior Fast & Furious films. While those films aren't exactly high art themselves they at least know how to balance character moments with its crazy ass car stunts. Although NFS may share many of the same qualities as the first handful of Fast & Furious movies, chances are this franchise won't make it to a sixth installment to finally justify its existence like that one did.


NFS will upset fans of the videogame, will undoubtedly bore anyone looking for cool car chases and action and anyone left will find little redeeming value in its attempt to masquerade as a film with an actual story. It may have sounded like a sure bet for those hoping to get some quick cheap thrills from the copious amounts of car porn on display, but unfortunately that sure bet needs to be sent to the scrap heap and forgotten as soon as possible.

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