Heart-pounding race scenes compensate for shortcomings
The car movie genre is a tough nut to crack. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the higher quality movies are diamonds-in-the rough, in a desert of terrible car films. A truly great car movie has to swim against the tide of opinion about the genre. Those who do not care about cars (i.e. most average Americans) typically hold opinions that car movies are nothing more than testosterone-fueled explosion-fests. Need For Speed, a car movie based on a video game, certainly has its work cut out.
We automotive enthusiasts say all the old cars and old car movies are better, because old is good in our world. We laud the greats, like Le Mans, Bullitt, and the original Gone in 60 Seconds. Is it because they are actually that good? Or is it because since then, we’ve been subjugated to the likes of Torque, RedLine, and the new Gone in 60 Seconds?
Either way, it’s no secret that a car movie is a quick easy ways to make money. They can make a movie that’s loaded with product placement, on a shoestring budget, and leverage the low expectations of pimple-faced 16-year-old that have Lamborghini posters on their walls.
Need For Speed– in theaters everywhere today– is NOT an amazing movie. But it IS a great car movie, inspired by the classics of the 1960s. It does what a great car movie should do– deliver incredible live-action car chase scenes that are move memorable than the plot itself.
The film stars Aaron Paul as Tobey Marshall, a mechanic that participates in illegal street racing. Marshall is framed for a crime he did not commit, and once released, is bent on seeking revenge, and clearing his name.
The acting strength of NFS should come as no surprise. This film must have been a cakewalk for Aaron Paul compared to playing the role of tortured Jesse Pinkman. When asked about making the transition, Paul said, “It was so much lighter than Breaking Bad.”
Paul’s acting gravitas was to be expected, but a surprise came in the delivery and comic relief of Scott Mescudi– you might know him as Kid Cudi. His character, Benny, has a military background in the film. As a result, Benny is nearly omnipresent as the “eyes in the sky,” in various aircraft. His access to certain aircraft seemed highly unlikely, making for a bit of a plot hole– and it wasn't the only one.
The decision by director Scott Waugh to fit the hero car Ford Mustang with unrealistic head-up displays and the Jack Bauer-worthy communications equipment detracted from the film’s ability to suspend of disbelief. Had the equipment been a little more realistic (i.e. more befitting of a ragtag team of mechanics, led by an ex-con), it would have rooted the film in something more real. Instead, it takes things in a more G.I.Joe direction, which is unfortunate.
But frankly, all is forgiven with the racing scenes. Director Scott Waugh and stunt coordinator Lance Gilbert grew up as the sons of Hollywood stunt men. Their respect for true, live-action car scenes is apparent, as the use of CGI was kept to a minimal. The sounds are accurate, the choice in cars are great and, most importantly, the production team created chase scenes with clear action and long shots. The Michael Bay method of overwhelming you with CGI smash-cuts is not welcome here. You feel like you are part of the action, and if you have an automotive background, you have a sense of what the cars are actually going through. You get a feel of what gear they are in, and if they are under hard braking– something missing from the Fast and the Furious franchise since the first film.
In short, the plot was decent. The acting from Paul was spot on. The rest of the cast was meh. But the racing had you clawing at the theater armrest. The biggest shortcoming was the villain. Dominic Cooper played the rich playboy Dino well, but it just wasn’t the right choice. Considering that you have Michael Keaton as the whacky, old radio host, the film missed a great opportunity. I would have had Keaton as a grizzled old veteran, desperate to hold on to what’s his, and had a young, nerdy type hosting some sort of podcast or LiveStream of De Leon– but then again, I wasn't directing the film.
Need For Speed has long been a beloved computer and video game. I grew up on several versions of it. Need For Speed SE was a terrific PC game, and NFS: Underground was the perfect complement to the rise of the Fast and Furious franchise. But F/F as of late had become more of a heist movie, quick-cutting through the crucial street racing scenes. In effect, it had abandoned the enthusiasts, in favor of a 2 hour soap opera, with the occasional bro-fest. This film, then is everything that Fast and Furious has left behind– an okay plot but exciting racing. It will be interesting to see how the film is received– the action is so good that we hope people recognize Need For Speed for what it is– an homage to the great car movies and chase scenes of the 60s and 70s, crafted by two men with motor oil in their veins.