Engineered for maximum velocity, super-torqued hairpin turns and high-octane thrills (obviously), thanks to the likes of the “Fast & Furious,” you should know exactly what to expect from the upcoming junior series, “Need For Speed” aka “Hot Wheels: The Movie.” But if the ‘F&F’ series is often absurdly entertaining with riotous cinematic maximalism in the pole position, “Need For Speed” is comparatively humorless, arguably dumber and doesn’t boast the same visual horsepower.
Toiling in the world of muscle car elbow grease, flashy exotic cars, hot-heads, blue collar underdogs, burning vengeances, double-crosses, redemptions to be fulfilled and even burgeoning romances, “Need For Speed” often feels like it’s been ripped from the generic masculine “bad boy” auto plot generator more than the mind of human beings functioning at full brain capacity. Based on the immensely popular video game series created by Electronic Arts, which has sold 140 million copies worldwide so far, the movie’s lazy, formulaic approach to plot convention also feels simplistic enough that the teenage boys (and man-children) of the world can enjoy this picture with no fuss or muss.
As played by the “yeah, bitch” Aaron Paul you know so far (minus the emotional nuance of his tortured “Breaking Bad” character) Tobey Marshall doesn’t need the world of pro-racing. He’s got street racing, his loyal crew and $5,000 paydays to tide him over. Tobey Marshall also doesn’t need the help of arrogant ex-NASCAR driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), his riches or Anita (Dakota Johnson), the ex-girlfriend who ditched him for Dino years ago. Marshall’s got bragging rights. Everyone knows if he chose to go pro he’d conquer the circuit, but he’s too brash and rogue to play by anyone’s rules, but his own… man.
But as his dad dies, and debts build, Toby does need his rival’s money after all. And the Faustian deal with the devil Toby makes to get ahead goes all wrong. A rigged race goes bad, a beloved little brother figure perishes (Harrison Gilbertson) and double-crossed for the crime, Toby lands him in jail. As a mechanic-turned-street racer, framed for a crime he didn't commit, who then seeks to avenge the death of his friend in a high-stakes De Leon race that takes him across the country, “Need For Speed” is both needlessly complicated and yet utterly simplistic (and almost reads like a parody of a video game adaptation, stuffing in every possible stacked-against “good guy gets screwed” truism possible).
Cooper essentially plays the sneering douchebag villain with a capital D, right down to wearing a dumb black turtle neck and feeling remorse about nothing. The character is so poorly drawn the English actor has no room to play him as anything other than the loathsome villain. And that irritating one-note is emblematic of how crude it all is.
All movies borrow, but everything about “Need For Speed” embraces clichés and it’s shameless narrative feels like a stolen patch-work of deeply familiar narrative tropes; the race against time motif is ripped from “Speed” and a zillion other action with momentous forward motion. The initially chafing, but then growing-on-each other dynamic between Paul and Imogen Poots—as his British love interest—is about as unimaginative as trapped-together-against-their-will romances get. Paul’s bros—played by the multicultural collection of Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Scott Mescudi (aka rapper Kid Cudi)—are employed as stock comic relief caricatures, but otherwise are about as essential as the references to twerking (Cudi is particularly clownish and doing a routine dangerously close to goofy minstreling).
In case you’re somehow lost in the one-dimensional plot, Michael Keaton’s quasi pirate-Internet-radio-for illegal-car-racing host pops in occasionally like a Greek chorus, to give an expository play by play of what you’ve seen and reminding you of the emotional stakes in case all the car chases have numbed your brain into submission. Keaton chews the scenery with his role, but his commentating buffoonery also gets old quick (in the final act, his character is reduced to narrating everything you see in the race and then filling in for the audience with gasps, cheers, disbeliefs and the other collective emotions of watching an insane drag race).
As a pure video game adaptation, “Need For Speed” is ideal (well, minus the first 40 minutes of plot), and its set-up, “I’ve gotta get revenge on the supercilious bad guy for killing my best friend” is perfectly simple-minded and slanted with difficult, ostensibly insurmountable odds. The picture's thrills are kinetic and it’s emotional-maturity-of-a-teenager “get the girl, avenge the friend and save the day” plotting and characters is likely going to connect with audiences looking for pure, dumb escapism. Visually, 3D doesn’t adapt well to claustrophobic shots of drivers in tight frames, and shaky cams absorbing the shocks of wild, hair pin turns. The first action sequence is therefore headache inducing, but admittedly, the eyes do adjust.
Directed by Scott Waugh, a stunt guy/actor, turned producer in the aughts and then finally director with "Act of Valor" in 2012, he brings the same in-your-face immersive intensity to the action sequences. And with a bigger budget, the action isn’t all hand-held headcam first-person-shooter dynamics. But he’s still challenged as far as anything resembling acting, narrative, plot or emotion. Though, thanks to the slathered on, comically epic score by Nathan Furst (“Act of Valor”), Waugh does understand the emotion of melodrama. So much of the movie is pitched to a (sometimes pleasurably silly) do-or-die 11 soundtrack that it feels like it’s ripped from the pages of stadium-sized rock and the equally hilariously over-the-top music videos that accompany them (some hilariously bad and XTREME modern covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Aerosmith and Bob Dylan are misused as well.)
As a stand-in or interim pit stop for “The Fast & Furious” franchise, “Need For Speed” suffices and should race to the top of the box-office, but divorcing your brain from how sophomoric it is versus the visual joys are tough. Admittedly, at the midway part when “Need For Speed” abandons all notions of story and heads for go-for-broke ridiculousness, it’s briefly, immensely enjoyable in an extremely silly way. But these moments, much like laughter derived by some of the more risible character interactions and pedestrian characterization is short-lived, disposable and fleeting.
“Need For Speed" possesses eye-rolling, tone deaf dialogue, passable performances (unless you’re Dominic Cooper or Kid Cudi) and plotting so conventional, there’s not even one surprise U-turn anywhere. But if you’re spending your money for “Need For Speed,” you’re likely not paying for good dialogue, characters, plot or story. You’re here for cars, adrenaline-filled set-pieces, visceral action and popcorn escapism. So in that sense “Need For Speed” fits the bill, but just remember to check your brain at the door.
This is a movie that Vin Diesel himself will pull over to the curb, roll down the window, look above his designer shades and give you a thumbs up for, before screeching off wildly into oncoming traffic. We’re sure the superstar approves and so will the legion of moviegoers happy to guzzle down this Super Soda of a movie. [D]