I’m kind of shocked at my fellow critics dumping all over Need for Speed, citing its juvenile plot and cardboard characters as major flaws. If that’s what you guys are interested in, the check out The Grand Budapest Hotel in the theater next door. This one ain’t for you. If you seriously wandered into Need for Speed looking for such things – and indeed are prepared to hold it accountable because it didn’t deliver – your expectations need to align a little more with reality.
If you know the video game, you understand that it’s all about driving really fast through colorful locales. In other words, there’s no narrative to adhere to, which means the filmmakers can set up any story they want. Here, they draw back to the exploitation chase movies of the 1970s: films like Vanishing Point and Dirty Marry, Crazy Larry, which boasted nothing more than a fast car and a stuntman crazy enough to drive it. For this film, they hang a simple idea about a down-on-his-luck would-be racer (Aaron Paul), imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit and seeking redemption by driving a high-end Mustang cross country to a highly illegal race along the Pacific Coast. Naturally, he has to break parole to do it, and not only are the cops on his tail, but the evil driver who set him up (Dominic Cooper) has put a bounty on his head.
That’s pretty much all you need to know: impetus, goal and nothing but highway between the one and the other. Director Scott Waugh takes his spiritual predecessors to heart and relies almost entirely on real stuntwork rather than CGI tricks. You can feel the difference in the various white-knuckle set pieces and the solid camerawork that brings them to us. It won’t quite match those earliest films for sheer gutsiness, but it still has its priorities in the right place. The cars are prettier than the girls (and considering that the female lead is Imogen Poots, that’s saying something), and Waugh shoots them with almost fetishistic glee.
For car hounds and fans of the video game, that should be more than enough, and even casual action fans should find plenty here to keep them satisfied until Captain America arrives in April. Need for Speed even has a secret weapon in Michael Keaton: playing the mysterious organizer of the race and adopting the Cleavon Little role as the eye in the sky watching it all unfold. Keaton has been out of the limelight for far too long, and watching the manic gleam in his eye as he describes Paul’s various travails makes for almost as much fun as the rest of the film.
Granted, the characters and plot are as thin as the critics say, and if 130 minutes of road stunts isn’t your thing, you’re apt to get very bored very quickly. Then there’s the question of appropriating a more genuine form of cinematic iconoclasm that a corporate product like this can justify. The films it emulates came from far outside the mainstream, expressing a serious contempt for the same powers that be that perpetrated this one. Need for Speed is mass-produced product, no different from the game line that spawned it, and its attempts to strike a rebellious pose feel as phony as a three-dollar bill.
But again, you can’t go into this endeavor and say you didn’t expect it. As a video game adaptation, Need for Speed is going to evince a little swagger it doesn’t quite deserve, riding on the coattails of its source material rather than establishing its own credentials. But it certainly understands its purpose in life, and goes about it with the flair and pizazz one expects from a modest bit of entertainment. In fact, all things being equal I’d say it’s one of the best video game adaptations out there: a fairly humble boast that belies the reliable good time behind it.