“Need For Speed” has set itself up as an homage to badass low-budget car movies from the 1970s, even going so far as to explicitly evoke that image in the marketing. And the action is definitely more “Vanishing Point” than “Fast and Furious.” Hell, there’s even an early scene where the main character, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) and his crew watch Steve McQueen tear around San Francisco in “Bullet” at a local drive-in theater. You know right away what aesthetic they’re going after. This isn’t intended as a knock on the Vin Diesel-centric franchise, those films have been fun—especially the last two—but this is a throwback different time, with a stoic, man-of-few-words hero, and is more about American muscle and Italian rarities than it is about supped up imports with gaudy paint jobs and low-profile tires. Even though “Need For Speed” is 40 minutes too long, and everything that’s not driving is utter garbage, this is still a reasonably good time.
One thing “Need For Speed” desperately needs is a haircut. It’s long and shaggy and out of control to the point that it’s starting to obscure its vision. Like the films it seeks to emulate, the strongest points involve cars, and the weakest involve more delicate matters like characters and story. The chase scenes are great. Director Scott Waugh does an admirable job of giving them that right-to-the-edge feel that modern audiences need, but still keeping them grounded. With a couple of obvious exceptions, we’re not talking about the physics-defying mayhem of “The Fast and the Furious 6,” but even those moments are still within the realm of physical possibility.
The story element, however, never measures up to the action. That’s to be expected, this is an action movie after all, but the truly baffling part is how much nonsense they try to cram in. You can’t think of a single reason why “Need For Speed” has to be to be 130 minutes long. All of this extra time is filled with superfluous attempts to give the film a depth that it never achieves and, frankly, doesn’t need. Tobey is a type, and while Paul’s charisma, which makes him so good in “Breaking Bad,” makes you like him, that’s all you’re going to get.
The script from George and John Gatins continually forces complications down your throat and all they do is distract. Tobey has an ex (Dakota Johnson), a rival (Dominic Cooper), a set of mildly amusing bros, and they race cars. You learn all of this, which is everything, in the first few minutes, but “Need For Speed” continues to hammer these points home. Take the group of friends for example. Immediately you know that these are the kind of guys that would do anything for each other. But the film can’t leave it at that, and the main thrust of the movie takes a detour to Detroit for no reason other than one of the bit players can run naked through an office building in the process of quitting a job.
In addition to these failed attempts to create an emotional payoff, the plot is needlessly convoluted. All you need to know is that Tobey’s on a mission for revenge—one with a laundry list of contributing factors including a dead friend, a jilted lover, petty jealousy, and raging hubris, among others. He has to drive a really fast car across the country in 45 hours, and then there will be a big race. Again, attempts to add to Tobey’s motivation only cloud the picture and take up time—his little sidekick dies, Tobey goes to prison, there’s a tedious love story with Imogen Poots as the hot British love interest. The asides are endless and terrible and contrived beyond belief, and worst of all, they add nothing.
Between being based on a video game and Waugh’s last outing as director—“Act of Valor,” which is most noteworthy because is stars actual active duty Navy SEALs—I had one very specific concern going into “Need For Speed.” While “Valor” has one terrific action scene, the film devolves into long point of view shots, which make you feel like you’re watching someone play a first person shooter. This same move is one of the things that ruined much of the action in the new “RoboCop,” and damn near every video game movie falls back on it at some point. It’s become a terrible cliché that tries to put you in the middle the action, but doesn’t. On occasion in “Need For Speed” goes down this path, but sparingly, and only when it makes visual sense. For instance, if there’s a split-second break between two cars and Tobey blasts through, Waugh will use a POV shot, but he makes it quick, uses the technique for what it’s worth, and gets out.
As good as the chase scenes are throughout, the climactic race is a letdown. It’s actually because the action is strong. The whole point of the movie is to get Tobey to this super-secret race called Deleon so he can have a showdown with his dickhead rival Dino (Cooper). The race is put on by a reclusive millionaire known as the Monarch—Michael Keaton who plays this as a ridiculous mad man—a totally forced insert who serves the Cleavon Little DJ role from “Vanishing Point.” First Tobey has tear ass across the country just to get there, and that journey is just way, way more interesting and fun than the final duel, and you can’t help but feel a little let down.