Need for Speed (2014)
So Need for Speed didn’t exactly bomb, but certainly underperformed when it was released earlier this year. People have put this down to it being a video game adaptation. I can’t really see that logic when Transformers: Age of Extinction (based on a cartoon created to sell toys to kids, lest we forget) can make enough money to buy at least 7 pairs of “Beats by Dre” headphones. It’s odd that games don’t seem to work when adapted for film because the two mediums have been aping each other so much that I’d assumed they would have converged into a singularity by now. Why don’t video game films work? It’s a pertinent question. Sadly, it’s probably because they’re never passion projects, just business opportunities to cash-in on a known brand to the oh-so-important teenage demographic. Nobody on the creative teams for these things cares enough about them or respects the medium.They break the bones of the game to fit their restrictive blockbuster mould and discard potentially great elements because they don’t know what to do with them. This almost always ensures that a grey, generic sludge is produced, only vaguely related to the source material, that understandably pisses off game and film fans alike. Case in point, Need for Speed.
“They took everything from me.”
Two years after Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) was framed for the death of his friend, he is released from prison and immediately sets out for revenge on the true culprit behind the fatal car crash, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). In order to get back at Dino, Marshall needs to qualify for and enter the legendary De Leon race, headed by the mysterious Monarch (Michael Keaton). The one massive flaw in the plan, however, is the fact that Marshall is on parole and forbidden from leaving the state. There’s also the fact that he has a bounty on him, with a supercar promised to whomever manages to stop Marshall and his passenger, Julia (Imogen Poots) from getting to the start line. The film is a basic revenge narrative set in the world of superfast cars, which is fine by me. As a massive Breaking Bad fan it pains me to say this, but Aaron Paul just doesn’t work as the stoic hero they’re going for. I’m not sure whether it’s just a case of miscasting or the script not being meaty enough for Paul to work with. Dominic Cooper does well as the suited slimeball Dino. He’s one of the better villains I’ve seen in a while, but the writing rears its ugly head to make sure he’s only a partial success. Imogen Poots is decent enough, but is definitely slumming it. The oddest performance is Michael Keaton who is somehow hammy and understated at the same time- and not in the good way that might imply. I get a real sense of lack of effort on Keaton’s part, although it definitely doesn’t help that he’s in the same room for the entire film and only very occasionally interacts with any of the cast. He’s a weird, floating presence mostly used to explain any shit they couldn’t be bothered to fit in anywhere else in the film.
I get what Need for Speed is trying to do. It wants to be a throwback to the Steve McQueen era, even going so far as to have Bullitt playing at a drive-in theatre and the soundtrack being modern covers of classics like “Fortunate Son”. It’s a half-hearted attempt to return to that very vague yet oddly specific era of Americana that probably didn’t exist in the first place. It also wants to have a B movie vibe, like some of McQueen’s filmography. This is fine, but it doesn’t really commit to it and these elements barely feature in the rest of the film. Despite what you might think, the film is more of a road movie than anything else, focusing on Tobey and Julia’s race to get to the er… race. The sticking point is that neither character is particularly fleshed out. There are concessions to normal storytelling occasionally, but most of the time it’s like watching two amnesiacs trying to figure out who they are. Same with Tobey’s apparently loveable pit crew. I watched this film a few hours ago as of writing this review and I would struggle to fill a Post-It Note with what I remember about them. All I know is that there’s one call Pete or Petey that is so tediously wide-eyed and innocent he may as well have a bullseye stapled to his forehead. Plus there’s some bullshit about Pete’s “visions” that never convinces in being anything but a cloying, hackneyed addition to the script that doesn’t work in any capacity.
The usual counter-argument to all this is the Transformers argument: “but’s it’s just a dumb action film blah blah blah”. True, it is an action film and yes, you can hardly expect Shakespeare and ruminations on the human condition in a film made to appeal to teenagers who love fast cars and violence. I’m aware of the limitations and am accepting of them (big of me, I know). 2013’s 2 Guns wasn’t going to win any writing awards, but it was solid enough to make the non-shooty bits almost as entertaining as the shootier bits. Need for Speed, on the other hand, is bad through and through. It takes elements like a cross country race whilst pursued by cops and rouge drivers and somehow makes them boring. I found myself forcing to accept some of the weak characters and head-scratching decisions just so I could get to the film’s racing bread and butter. I didn’t care about any of the characters and as such was left numb by it all. The film tries to give the characters depth but fails massively. The introduction of Imogen Poots’ character outlined this for me. So Tobey and Pete et al. have just finished working on a legendary car and are admiring their handiwork. She sidles up, acting all ditzy and asking basic questions like “is it fast?”. They start being rather patronising in response.She soon convinces them to pop the hood and proceeds to expertly list all the components to the surprise of Tobey and Pete. She then gets on her high horse and scolds them for assuming she knew nothing about cars. Thing is, they don’t know her at all. If you’re going to play dumb when meeting new people then the only real assumption they can make about you is that you’re dumb. It reminds me of this comic: click. The film is full of stuff like this and it became harder and harder to forgive as it went on.
I looked up who was responsible for the warcrime of a screenplay and it’s George Gatins, a first time writer who just so happens to be the brother of one of the producers, John Gatins. Don’t you just love Hollywood nepotism? There’s an overabundance of writers out there that could take the basic elements of this and create something really entertaining, but they give it to some rich prick’s brother. Awesome. As for the action, it’s the film’s only saving grace. There’s an impressive commitment to practical stunts and some of the races and crashes are incredibly well done. This is hardly surprising as director Scott Waugh has a long history of stuntwork, so there’s a legitimacy to the action sequences. That’s about it though. The car stuff is decent.
“*Some other fucking awful line that I can’t be bothered to look up*”
So yeah, Need for Speed isn’t good. It’s boring, terribly written and it made my head hurt. You’d have a hard time convincing me that anyone involved (apart from Paul and Cooper) genuinely wanted to make a good film. Disappointing on many different levels. Not recommended.