Aaron Paul vehicle lacks va va vroom
The Need for Speed video game series, more so than many other of its ilk, doesn’t naturally lend itself to film. They’re thinly plotted, gameplay-driven, and more concerned with the possibilities of the wheel than the man behind it. The games come alive not during a human cut-scene (which are, after all, skippable for a reason), but when they give the player a glossy vehicle to total along a (usually rural) landscape. That being considered, make what you will of the following: Need for Speed the film changes almost nothing from the formula of its source.
The obvious advantage of sticking to the roots of the video game is that we get some of the most thrillingly shot driving sequences in recent years, made, remember, with no CGI and the actors themselves scowling in the drivers seat. Director Scott Waugh (who has, fittingly, a strong stuntmen background) has cited films like Bullitt as influential to the realism he was going for during shooting. And, along with a more on-the-nose reference at an open-air cinema, you can feel that films’ guiding presence throughout; the whining of wheels on the tarmac, delicate vehicles negotiating through narrow alleyways, and the uninterrupted intensity of an early street race. Waugh also takes the odd nervous toe dip into experimenting with his camera angles, putting us, at different times, in the drivers seat, the skies looking down, and inside a vehicle mid-flip.
For all that the stunts will drop the jaws, its script will equally roll the eyes. Centered on mechanic/competitive racer Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) and his vendetta against the man who had him wrongly imprisoned (a hugely underwritten villain in Dominic Cooper) for the murder of a chum, it’s a revenge plot so toothless and secondhand (down to its wacky entourage) that it makes the Fast & Furious series seem like an oeuvre. Seldom has a film so blatantly structured its narrative and character work around its set pieces, rather than the other way around.
Occasionally the humour works – Kid Cudi has a ball as a garrulous pilot with inexplicable connections - but there are more counts where it doesn’t, like a bizarre skit involving bare bums and dumbfounded office clerks. And the less said about Michael Keaton’s scenery-chewing input as ‘Monarch’, (a racing deity whose inclusion seems to be purely for exposition and over-hyping plot turns) the better. The biggest winners are Imogen Poots and Aaron Paul, who actually do a lot with very little, overstepping the clumsiness of a romantic subplot, and charming despite their clichéd characters; she’s a prospective car dealer who (surprise surprise) is more than just a pretty face, and he’s the brooding hero who is yet to live up to his fathers legacy. Paul does a handy job in a more repressed role post-Breaking Bad, but he and the film are let down by a script that treats character development as an afterthought.
Inanely plotted, impersonal and tepid in tone, Need for Speed can take pride from its driving sequences, but it never gets out of first gear.