Yes, Need for Speed is shallow, has its share of silly dialogue and isn’t as good as the Fast and Furious movies. But it still makes for one hell of an enjoyable ride, thanks to a likeable cast and a director who knows his way around stunt work. In short, I had way more fun watching this movie than I should have.
Cast: Aaron Paul (Tobey Marshall), Dominic Cooper (Dino Brewster), Imogen Poots (Julia Madden), Rami Malek (Finn), Scott Mescudi (Benny), Harrison Gilbertson (Little Pete), Michael Keaton (Monarch)
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After the Need for Speed screening ended, I was joined in the elevator to the parking garage by a woman who I judged to be in her late seventies.
“Well, that was a quite the ‘guy movie,’ huh?” she asked me.
“Oh, I didn’t think so — I liked it!” I replied.
“I just came for Aaron Paul. He was so excellent in Breaking Bad, wasn’t he?”
Yep. From the twenty-somethings sitting next to me in the theater who whispered and giggled every time Paul was on-screen during the pre-show “behind the scenes” featurette, to my elderly elevator companion, to myself, this one fact is true: women love Aaron Paul. And most of that love is derived from his Emmy-winning performance as Jesse Pinkman in the now-ended AMC series Breaking Bad. The fact that Paul seems genuinely grateful for his success and is notoriously generous to his fans doesn’t hurt, either. And now that I think about it, I have yet to meet a male Breaking Bad fan who doesn’t also like him.
But I still wondered if Paul would be able to hold his own in Hollywood post-Bad. I was impressed with his performance in the 2012 indie Smashed, but truth be told I didn’t find his character to be too far off from Pinkman. So the action-thriller, franchise-hopeful Need for Speed was going to be Paul’s big test. Did he pass?
Yes. If anything, Paul’s acting chops — combined with an unexpected dose of humor and honest-to-god (as in, no CGI) action sequences — are what save Need for Speed. Just like you, when I saw the ads for this movie I thought it would be downright horrible and cheesy. “They’re making a MOVIE out of that game I used to play at the arcade back in the day? What?!?” But I had so much fun watching Scott Waugh’s adaptation that I really hope people give it a chance.
Since there wasn’t a “backstory” to the Electronic Arts’ video games upon which Need for Speed is based, screenwriting brothers George and John Gatins chose to make the plot revolve around the rivalry between two old high-school frenemies from Mt. Kisco, New York. Tobey Marshall, the protagonist, never left the small town and is now managing his late father’s auto shop with the help of his closest buds. Dino Brewster, the “villain,” returns home from his glamorous life as a race-car driver with Tobey’s ex on his arm. But Dino wants to make peace because he has a proposal for Tobey: help me restore a prototype 50th-anniversary Ford Mustang and I’ll give you a cut of the multimillion-dollar sale.
Tobey has good reason to doubt Dino’s intentions, yet helps him anyway because he needs the cash. But since boys will be boys, they can’t just BOTH walk away winners after the successful transaction — they now have to prove their manliness by way of a “winner takes all” race of street-illegal cars. While I was totally into the action sequences throughout Need for Speed, two early ones involving Tobey, Dino and Tobey’s young friend “Little Pete” did give me a few moments of pause. Perhaps it was because the audience laughed when the trio nearly ran over a homeless man pushing a shopping cart, and then said homeless man angrily shook his fist at the cars like “you darn kids!” Or maybe I was unable to suspend disbelief, as is pretty much required while watching any action movie, because these particular jaunts seemed so exceedingly stupid and dangerous. The second race in question did indeed prove fatal for one character, and ultimately served to set up Tobey’s motivation to take down Dino once and for all in the future. Could the writers have found a better way to establish that desire for revenge, though? Probably.
But let’s be real: a movie based on a video game about racing cars is not supposed to be deep. It’s supposed to be pure escapism. If you go to this movie wanting anything other than that, you’re doing it wrong. So with his second full-length feature, Waugh (Act of Valor) had the sense to realize he needed to either go big or go home. An ex-stuntman himself, he ensured that each crash, flip and squealing turn was not only real, but also spectacular. As Tobey eventually makes his way across the country to face off against Dino in the ultimate street race, the “De Leon,” there’s a particularly inspired sequence in Detroit involving Tobey launching the Mustang high in the air across several lanes of traffic. Now, I’m originally from a suburb of Detroit, and will admit that I have a soft spot for any movie that chooses to show “the D” in all of its sunny, sparkly, and gorgeous glory rather than as a depressed, post-Apocalyptic-looking ghost town. So I could easily overlook the question of, say, why stopping in Detroit to pick up a friend on the way from New York to California made any sense in the first place.
Speaking of Tobey’s friends, while I found Imogen Poots’ character 100% unnecessary even though her acting was perfectly fine, it was Rami Malek and Scott Mescudi (better known as Kid Cudi) who were the real standouts. They were both hilarious in their respective roles, with Malek’s Finn pulling off the ultimate job resignation (you just have to see it) and Mescudi’s Benny being so welcomingly positive that you won’t care how impossible it is that his character keeps popping up IN PLANES AND HELICOPTERS at a moments’ notice. Laughing (sincerely laughing, not sneering) wasn’t something I expected I’d be doing much during Need for Speed, but the characters’ offbeat sense of humor kept the film from taking itself too seriously. And finally, though he was more “fun to watch” than “funny,” Michael Keaton as the mysterious, deranged Internet host of the De Leon added some sort of legitimacy to the whole crazy mess for me.
The bottom line: If you’re just looking to have a fun time at the movies, generally like car-racing flicks and are already an Aaron Paul fan, Need for Speed is worth your while. Just promise me you’ll buckle up and won’t challenge anyone to a drag race on the way home.