Friday, March 21, 2014

Need For Speed: A Review


I have one memory of video games that date from this century.  It was when Halo was all the craze.  In an uncharacteristic move from my friends, they invited me to play Halo.  I had not come into contact with a joystick since perhaps Mrs. Pac-Man, so this was a surprise.  I did my best but it was clear I wasn't going to help them kill things.  I spent a large chunk of my time trying to figure out how to move my character, and for a few minutes all I could do was spin around in circles because I didn't know which buttons did what (no matter how often others gave vague hand gestures to help me out).  At one point, Nacho (who took Halo FAR too seriously), told me to basically just stay there and not move.  Actually, he said something harsher and in such a forceful manner that everyone just froze for a few seconds.  Needless to say, I got up and stormed out.  Nacho, realizing he'd gone too far, went after me, and it was at this point that I came as close as I hope to ever come to punching someone.  My arm was in position, he was just millimeters from my took all my strength to pull back.

I open my review for Need For Speed this way because I need to let people know that I have no idea what the source material is like.   I don't play video games and really never cared to.  Therefore, how close or far Need For Speed is something I can't say.  The film itself is nothing more than an excuse to show fast cars doing unbelievable things.  There are no actual characters or a real story behind Need For Speed.  Having said that, the film is not good, but nowhere near a disaster.

Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a racing legend in Mt. Kisco, New York, racing in local events.  His garage is having financial trouble, and while he and his crew do their best, things are not going well.  Enter Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper).  Even though he and Tobey have had a difficult relationship in the past, Dino offers a chance for Tobey to get out of debt if he does work on a Mustang to make it go even faster.  At the presentation, Tobey and his little buddy Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) brag about its speed to Julia (Imogen Poots), the car buyer's aide.  It does go fast, and while the car is sold for a bit less than what they hoped for it still fetches Tobey more than enough to get him out of debt.  Dino, however, challenges him to a winner-take-all prize.  Tobey reluctantly agrees, and his little buddy gets in on the race too, especially after he tells Tobey he had a 'vision' of Tobey winning the De Leon, a fabulously expensive underground race.

Pinkman's Revenge?

Well, as Tobey is about to win Pete is killed off in the race by Dino.  Tobey is held responsible, especially since he got out of his car to see about Pete (who had not only had a big rollover but flown off a bridge with his car on fire).  Two years later, he is out of prison for Pete's death, and he now wants revenge.  Somehow convincing the Mustang owner to let him borrow his car (with a reluctant Julia tagging along), they somehow manage to get from New York to California in less than 48 hours.  They do manage this, even stopping to get the old crew back together.  There is Joe Peck (Ramon Rodriguez), Finn (Rami Malek), and Benny (Scott Mescudi), who watches things from various planes and helicopters.  To try and stop Tobey, Dino puts a bounty on Tobey's head, telling others that he will give the person who wipes Tobey out one of his famous cars as payment.  An effort was made, but Tobey and Julia (who by now have fallen in love) do make it.  However, Tobey and Julia are hit just after they arrive in California and have registered in the De Leon.  Julia is forced to go to hospital and now Tobey and Dino must fight it out in the streets.

Curiously, Pete's sisters Anita (Dakota Johnson), who had been Dino's girlfriend and discovers that he had killed her brother, gives Tobey the car that places Dino at the scene of the crime all those years ago.  In the end, Dino gets his comeuppance, Tobey has to serve some time in jail (again) for the street racing and parole breaking, and he and Julia head off into the future.

One thing that I will be extremely negative on with Need For Speed is the 3-D.  I have complained often about 3-D (seeing it as the Work of the Devil).  Here, I found no reason why the film required such gimmicks.  Minus one or two brief moments, there was nothing that Need For Speed added with this cash-grab that wouldn't have worked without it.  Since I didn't pay for this ticket I am not complaining too much, but the film works well enough without 3-D and anyone interested in going to see it should stick with 2-D.

There are other things to point at to show Need For Speed is a dumb movie.  The script by George Gatins (with story by him and John Gatins) makes so many lousy decisions, and some very bizarre moments.  When in Detroit to get Finn back (and the film never answers how Tobey's crew fared after his imprisonment), Finn, who by now has a vague office job, decides to quit then and there.  He does this by slowly stripping off all his clothes (stopping to kiss a girl along the way) and leave the building completely naked.  While it is good to see Malek is in fine physical form, what this has to do with anything (apart from making him look completely insane) we don't know.

Other elements in this movie (far too long in its two-hour plus running time) that are put in are pretty much waste of our time.  The rivalry between Dino and Tobey is suppose to be lifelong, but oddly none of Tobey's friends or Anita think Dino would be capable of murder.  Joe does, since he scowls at Dino during the funeral, but rather than try to exonerate his friend or prove Dino guilty, he pretty much disappears from the screen until needed.  The romance between Julia and Tobey doesn't come across as real, playing as though this were something that is suppose to happen.  Benny's quick quips proved more annoying than endearing, and whenever we are away from the cars the movie sputters (pun intended).

Another aspect in Need For Speed that is lacking is logic.  This De Leon race (which made me think was a version of The Cannonball Run) is suppose to be this secret underground race.  However, its impresario Monarch (Michael Keaton going all-out bonkers) apparently hosts a podcast and broadcasts the race live online.  Making things more confusing is Benny's actions.  He is this ace pilot who manages to take an Apache helicopter, complete with Army co-pilot (how we don't know) and also manages to get the illegal race shown to him in an army jail thanks to a pretty army guard. 

No worries.
I got two Emmys.

I'd say Benny is the most annoying character in his goofy persona (at one point, he manages to take a news helicopter and manages to zoom the camera at three hot women running by the water).  However, given that the performances aren't what one goes for in Need For Speed, we can forgive a lot.  We can forgive Cooper cashing a check as Dino, who is so obviously evil he doesn't bother to try to make him even remotely pleasant.  We can also forgive Keaton also cashing a check.  In his favor, he made Monarch into this bonkers figure who pretty much knew he was crazy and didn't care.   Poots was apparently never sure how she was suppose to come across: as either a bright capable woman or a dim-witted damsel in distress.

As for Paul, well, first I was surprised how deep his voice was.  However, having seen only one episode of Breaking Bad, he might have had that strong voice all this time.  There really was nothing in the script for Paul (or any actor) to latch onto, but in Paul's favor he played it as though he knew the script was weak and did the best he could with it. 

One thing in Need For Speed's favor is the multi-ethnic cast.  As someone who has been highly critical of how minorities are underrepresented in Hollywood, Need For Speed had a full mix of actors whose ethnicity was irrelevant.  There was a Hispanic, an African-American, and even an Arab-American with major parts, and moreover they weren't asked to play up stereotypes or used as tokens.  In short, they were allowed to play characters, not caricatures.  No mention was made that Joe Peck was played by a Latino, or that Finn was Arab.  This I consider a positive step.

There is no getting away from the shadow cast by the Fast & Furious franchise, and while Need For Speed at times plays like F&F's poor relation (yes, right down to the multicultural cast), a big benefit comes from the actual car chases/stunts.  There was virtually no CGI in Need For Speed, which made some of the stunt work all the more impressive.  Of particular note was when Tobey had to have his Mustang filled up as he was driving (not safe in so many ways) and when in Detroit he flies across a tree. 

When it comes to the stunts, director Scott Waugh delivers the goods.  When it comes to everything else (story, performances, plot), he apparently didn't bother.   

I wavered between recommending or not recommending Need For Speed.  I think this is the type of film that knows it's pretty much nonsense from the get-go and makes few if any apologies for it.  This is not a movie one needs to speed to (and especially not for 3-D).  It is far too long and nowhere near justifies its punishing length (stretches of time are wasted on needless things, like Julia and Tobey's getaway in Nebraska).  The situations, plot, and performances are clichéd and dumb.   However, the car scenes and mindless (and I do mean mindless) entertainment value of Need For Speed make it something to watch if nothing else is on and if you just want to images to wash over you.  It won't tax your mind, don't worry about following the story or thinking you will watch great performances (it has none), so just sit back and enjoy the ride. 


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