I Feel the Need for More Speed

“This ain’t just about racing.”

With that remark, Michael Keaton’s character, the one responsible for the film’s final De Leon invitational race, just about sums up the imminent transcendence of Electronic Arts’s “Need for Speed” from video game franchise to media platform. Marking the franchise’s 20th anniversary and a pivotal moment in the franchise’s history, “Need for Speed” leverages Aaron Paul’s rising star trajectory to pull up to the start line and vie for its role in Hollywood’s history of high-octane driving films.

Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures

Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures

Unfortunately, Paul’s launch into the big-budget Hollywood landscape following his run on the now-iconic “Breaking Bad,” is quickly hindered by the film’s heavy-handed treatment of its protagonist Tobey Marshall. All of the grit and texture from his character on AMC’s show was sandblasted and retooled to fit into Hollywood’s love affair with its stock “strong and silent alpha male” archetype.

Driven by angst over his friend’s death, and silent about his insecurities and struggles until they arise as conflicts, Tobey feels like he was written so that the studio could shoehorn any high-profile male actor into the role. The studio was smart to capitalize on Paul’s post-“Breaking Bad” status as a high-profile commodity, but nowhere to be seen is the actor who is one of only five to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.

For all of Julia’s (Imogen Poots) insistence that she is more than meets the eye, the film does little to explore her potential as anything more the trope of unlikely sidekick-slash-accessory to Tobey’s cross-country vendetta. The film continually disappoints with these contradictions, showing flashes of Poots’s dynamic character and then doing a 180-degree turn with a situation where she hinders Tobey’s progress. In fact, the film undermines Julia’s character potential at almost every turn while checking off every textbook “fragile damsel in distress that needs saving” stereotype.

In the film’s conclusion, Tobey straight up tells her that he doesn’t trust her driving despite her having been in the driver’s seat during a sequence with armed bounty hunters in pursuit. To the film’s credit, however, one of its most inspired sequences involves Julia hanging out of the passenger window during a brief respite in the middle of a police chase, and assisting with a moving refueling maneuver like the ones airplanes do while in flight.

While the script takes its male lead too seriously, Tobey’s supporting crew remain playful and provide some of the film’s standout moments, balancing out his perpetual vengeful glare. The presence of Maverick (Scott Mescudi), Joe (Ramón Rodríguez) and Finn (Rami Malek) onscreen almost always signals lively wisecracks at each other and provides much-needed levity to the always-on high stakes mentality that Tobey seems to never be able to escape.

In the film’s highlight comedy scene, “NFS” remains self-aware of this juncture in time when the demographics of the street racing lifestyle have grown up and are entrenched in the adult workforce. Upon finding out in the middle of a workday that his friends need him in order for Tobey to succeed at the De Leon, Finn strips nude and bares it all as he walks out of his corporate accounting job.

Better known as Kid Cudi, Mescudi’s performance is stellar, if underrated. The air support that Maverick provides from his Cessna, a news station Little Bird and even a military Apache helicopter are central not only to Tobey’s feats of high-speed maneuvering, but also to the film’s more daring race sequences.

Clocking in at just above 130 minutes, “Need for Speed” moves along at a pace that doesn’t quite live up to its race-driven roots. Scenes dedicated to developing character arcs and justifying the characters’ motivations for their high-speed feats feel flat. Julia’s attempts to engage in a conversation with Tobey at the beginning of their 45-hour cross-country trip feel like pulling teeth due to reluctance on behalf Paul’s angst-filled silent and mysterious character. Predictably, their relationship takes more dynamic turns but when Tobey finally cracks a smile it feels like the script is trying too hard to hurry along the implicit romantic tension between the two. Frankly, the script for Tobey is lazy and Paul’s one-dimensional character serves as a frustrating interruption in film’s driving sequences.

For a movie coming from pedigree of racing games, the actual driving lands somewhere between impressive and mediocre. Matching his mediocre character, Tobey’s solo driving sequences are middle-of-the-road, including the requisite destruction to property and exploding cars. Where the film had the chance to redeem itself for its less-than-stellar story and characters, the driving largely represents a missed opportunity.

Where the movie shines is when his supporting cast gets involved, contributing to tactics like slipstreaming or, in the case of Mescudi’s character, an off-the-cliff rescue via helicopter. Of additional note is the sound production’s glaring inaccuracies, with more pedestrian vehicles with an idling Prius cab sounding like it had a V6 engine. The movie also serves as a glorified, although very beautiful, advertisement for Ford’s latest Mustang, a complaint that Jason Torchinsky, of the automotive blog Jalopnik, shared.

Driving fast cars at very high speeds has served as the platform for several of the games’ plots before. Admittedly, however, nobody plays the games for their rich and engaging plots. It’s no surprise, then, that the translation from video game to film is less than stellar.

Representing the franchise’s inaugural foray into cinema, “Need for Speed” attempts to replicate the formula for success of the fan-favorite “Fast & Furious” films with high-powered cars and obscenely fast driving. Whereas those films, now awaiting their seventh iteration, have nearly perfected the ratio between automobiles, driving and drama, the debut of “Need for Speed” represents a false start for the franchise.

 

NOT RECOMMENDED: “Need for Speed” is yet another example of how video games don’t translate well to the film medium.