In the interest of full disclosure, I’d be lying if I said I approached Need For Speed with any kind of positive expectations. Adaptations from video game to film are rarely, if ever, going to bode well – so it’s rather unsurprising that Need For Speed is several different kinds of disappointing, despite the fleeting glimmers of hope that occasionally shine through. Hollywood stuntman turned director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) wants Need for Speed to be a fun and frenetic road trip, but it doesn’t appear that the writers were on the same page.
Toby Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a small town mechanic who’s both economical of speech and a wizard behind the wheel of a fast car. Long time rival/spoiled rich guy Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) doesn’t like him for reasons I’m not sure that are ever fully explained. Agreeing to a race to settle the score, Toby gets the blame when things go horribly wrong and winds up in jail. Upon release, he’s determined to exact revenge on Dino, and the only way to do that is to win the DeLeon. (That’s the cheat sheet version.)
The nail in the figurative coffin of Need For Speed is its frankly horrible script. The film burns through enough plot points to power a trilogy and then some, jumping through time and passing through more American states than you can follow. It seems to only make sense and join unresolved dots by accident, seeming suspiciously like a film that was written to accommodate extended car chase sequences at preordained points during the runtime. The perfunctory first act takes great pains to illustrate a backstory that’s largely unnecessary in the long run, and we don’t approach the story that is waiting to be told until at least 40 minutes in. None of this bodes well for the sluggish runtime; at 130 minutes Need for Speed well and truly overstays its welcome and unfortunately becomes somewhat of a bore.
Objectively, Need For Speed does quite well on a technical level. It’s shot with more ingenuity than any video game film has any right to, and the car chases are frequently sublime and ridiculous. The majority of the car stunts were done without CGI, and they’re mighty impressive on more than one occasion. But the various chases all blur together after a while, bearing no real relevance to plot until the bitter end; they’re all well done, but ultimately all a bit too much of the same.
I dearly hope that Aaron Paul has better material in store for him than this; he’s decidedly average, but Toby isn’t so much a character as a cardboard cutout moving between squares on a board game. Dominic Cooper is much the same, and the two actors would probably come off considerably worse if they didn’t spend 70% of their respective screen time behind the wheel of a car. Michael Keaton shows up via a webcam intermittently but I still don’t really understand who he was or what he accomplished, and how Kid Cudi and Rami Malek (Short Term 12) both ended up in this is more than a little puzzling. The one cast member that emerges from this car crash miraculously unscathed is Brit girl Imogen Poots; Need for Speed is full of exactly the kind of sexist nonsense you’d expect (you mean the girl can drive the super car?), but Poots is a welcome presence amongst the mediocre proceedings.
It would, of course, be a mistake to approach Need For Speed expecting an intellectual night at the cinema, but its overlong runtime and massive logical failings are so large that it’s even difficult to enjoy as a mindless bit of entertainment. Had it wholeheartedly embraced its utterly ridiculous trappings, it might have been a fun watch – yet while fuelled with ambition and energy to spare, Need for Speed is an unfortunately subpar exercise that never gets quite gets its engine going. Stick with the game.