Video game movie adaptations usually elicit groans and grimaces, and with good reason. There have been some decent video game-inspired movies, but none have transcended the niche genre to be a really good film in its own right.
"Need for Speed" manages to do just that.
Weighed down by the baggage of our previous video game movie experiences, we trudged into the theater and waited for the familiar sense of disappointment to set in. To our delight, it never did.
Perhaps the "Need for Speed" film benefited from the games providing little to no narrative, allowing director Scott Waugh ("Act of Valor") and screenwriters George and John Gatins to craft a tale of their own. Following this logic, however, the "Doom" movie should've also been a masterpiece, and it most certainly was not. Waugh and the Gatins worked to develop a love letter to American muscle cars that also pays homage to racing movies of yore, and "Need for Speed" delivers on all cylinders.
In the idyllic town of Mt. Kisco, NY, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a auto shop owner by day and street racer by night. His friends, both on and off the job, include Benny (Scott Mescudi), Finn (Rami Malek), Joe (Ramón Rodriguez), and Pete. NASCAR pro Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) rolls back into town to offer Tobey the chance to complete Carroll Shelby's 2012 Ford Mustang Cobra. Tobey and his crew will get a cut of the $3 million sale price.
After the work has been completed and the car has been sold, Dino wants to establish that he's the better driver by challenging Tobey to a double-or-nothing street race in identical Swedish Koenigseggs. Things go awry, and Dino speeds off, leaving Tobey to take the rap. He's carted off to prison for two years, and when he emerges, all he wants is revenge.
Tobey's released from jail just in time. The Monarch (Michael Keaton) is an eccentric recluse who runs the invite-only De Leon race, which is due to take place in California in two days' time. Tobey can borrow the Mustang — as long as Julia (Imogen Poots) tags along. They must haul ass across the country as they try to grab the Monarch's attention and score an invitation to the exclusive race.
The most overwhelming aspect of "Need for Speed" is that all of the cars sound amazing. The primary reason to watch this movie on the big screen is to absorb the jaw-dropping chase scenes and stunt sequences and to feel the heavy bass of the car engines rumbling in your chest. This isn't a sensation that most people can replicate at home, and it's an absolute treat to experience at the movie theater.
Given the director's work as a stuntman — and he comes from a family of stuntmen — and his decision to use live ammo in "Act of Valor," Waugh likes his movies to have an air of authenticity. For that reason, there's no CGI, and all of the actors do most of their own driving, for better or worse. Paul took advanced driving lessons while he wrapped up the final season of "Breaking Bad," and Poots didn't even have a license. There aren't any murky shots where you can't identify the driver of the vehicle; this is the real deal. Several expensive cameras were wrecked to capture the shot of the Mustang jumping over several lanes of traffic — and landing.
In the final race, there are the requisite Need for Speed video game references, with police cars and helicopters trying to keep up with the racing vehicles. They deploy the same tricks utilized by the cops in the video game — roadblocks, ramming cars, and traffic breaks — and that's pretty neat to see on the big screen.
When Paul arches his eyebrows at the outer corners, it looks like he's concocting an evil plan. Apparently I'm not the only one to think this, as he was initially considered for the part of Dino. The movie continues to dole out surprises because Paul is stellar as Tobey and manages to present him as a quietly determined, yet vulnerable tough guy. Keaton doesn't have too many scenes as the Monarch, but when he gets screen time, he's utterly convincing and resplendent when delivering his lines.
The 3-D in the film was done in post-production, so it's nothing to write home about. There are a couple of scenes that benefit from the addition of 3-D, but if you see this film in 2-D, you wouldn't be missing out on much.
"Need for Speed" is a great action movie with some excellent racing sequences, and it could be the moment when video game-inspired films finally shed their stigma. You'll have to suspend disbelief for the first 30 minutes or so while the story setup occurs, but after that, sit back, relax, and enjoy the gorgeous cars as they roar by. The name recognition of the video game series should help sell more tickets, so here's hoping that this is the beginning of a new movie franchise.
"Need for Speed" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours 10 minutes. It is showing in 2-D and 3-D.
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