High-octane or cow methane?

Sort-of-but-not-really based off the hit video game series, Need for Speed brings the cars and the stunts and the racing action — and little else.

Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) stars as Tobey Marshall, an underground racing legend and a well-regarded car tuner. When one of his higher stakes races goes tragically wrong, Marshall finds himself cooling his heels in prison, convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. When he’s let loose he has one thing on his mind: seeing that justice is served. Lucky for him, justice will be found on the hairpin turns of the most dangerous underground race in the world.

First things first: Need for Speed should be applauded for doing a fast car movie the right way. That is, practically. There are a handful of ambitious chase sequences embedded in the film and to the credit of the director Scott Waugh and his stunt crew they’re done with no CGI (at least none that my discerning eye can find). I’ve always thought computer-generated cars were the most egregious use of visual effects in action movies and I have never seen them done with success. CGI car crashes just feel like total cheap-outs. Need for Speed dispenses with all that, the auto mayhem rendered with old-fashioned engineering and exhaust manifolds.

So major points for this. Unfortunately, everything else associated with the film is straight-up jalopy-level. It pains me to say this as I am quick to endorse films like this that do it honestly (endangering the lives of stuntmen), but Need for Speed stinks.

It’s the age-old observation: What good is the action, if the characters and story have no weight to make it worthwhile? Even though I’d consider myself more forgiving of a lopsided narrative-to-action formula than most others, by any calculus, Need for Speed flails. Here’s why:

It’s too long.
A car chase movie should not clock in over two hours. At 131 minutes, Need for Speed is far too bloated for its own good, with at least thirty minutes ripe for pruning. The movie would still be a flop, but 90 minutes or so of almost straight car crashing is at least a bit more tantalizing.

No one would care if all of the characters died in a fiery car wreck.
Aaron Paul looks bored out of his mind, Dominic Cooper’s bad guy is a milquetoast douchebag, more clumsy than malevolent. Tobey’s crew is cartoonish and unfunny. Julia (Imogen Poots, 28 Weeks Later), the only female character is instantly forgettable. And the great Michael Keaton (Batman) is forced to say dialogue like “Racers race. Cops eat donuts.”

That donut line was the high point of the writing.
Oy, the script sucks. My favorite moments came when we first meet Julia at a car exhibition and the guys are talking about the Ford Mustang they rehabbed, mentioning that it has 900 horsepower and she says “Is that a lot?” Then, she pops the hood, reels off some engineering gibberish because, you know, she knows a lot about cars even though she’s an attractive blonde woman. She then asks the guys if they were surprised she knew all of this because she was a woman or was British. You know, I’m going to have to go with the fact that the script had you just ask if 900 horsepower was “a lot.”

A nice and loud Need for Speed (Blu-ray) from Dreamworks starts with a clean 2.39:1/1080p transfer that renders its car porn with verve. Even better is the throaty DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix, an extremely aggressive mix that will turn your A/V room into the Nurburgring. Extras: Commentary with Waugh and Paul, a behind-the-scenes look at how the car action was done practically and featurettes on the stunt crew, the sound production, the circus that is the traveling production team, outtakes, deleted scenes, and an iTunes digital copy.

THE VERDICT
Off to the scrapyard.

 

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