The car-racing genre of film has always been one of the more interesting to follow due to its fluctuation in quality. It’s a genre that has given us some pretty great films like George Lucas’ classic coming of age tale American Graffiti, the hilariously satirical Talladega Nights, and, most recently, the thrilling Ron Howard film Rush. However, it’s also managed to deliver audiences some crashing stinkers like Speed Racer, Death Race, Getaway, and a list of other disappointing films. Even when evaluating The Fast and the Furious series, arguably the most successful car racing franchise of all time, some could valuably make the claim that in this 6-film franchise there has been three that have worked well and three that haven’t.
The uncertainty of the car-racing genre is the reason why when the first Need for Speed trailer was released there was instant skepticism. While the action sequences looked tightly filmed and more realistic than the manic fanaticism of Fast and Furious and the recruiting of talent like Aaron Paul was promising, there was a part of my brain that was doubtful. After all, would a video game adaptation like this one be able to restore the once seductive model of the genre? Walking out of the film, though certainly entertained by its fantastic action set pieces, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that a few key elements could have been added to raise the movie to being one of the better installments in this recently out-of-gas genre.
Need for Speed stars Aaron Paul (of Breaking Bad fame) as Tobey Marshall, a blue-collar mechanic with a knack for racing cars. After being reunited with an old rival and persecuted for a crime he didn’t commit, Tobey is released from prison and sets out on a cross-country trip to avenge the death of his fallen friend. With cops chasing him, a bounty on his head, and an unexpected passenger tagging along, Tobey’s driving skills and loyalties get pushed to the test.
In a world where high-concept, blockbuster actions films are becoming less and less practical and more mindlessly crazy, Need for Speed breaks that trend completely with a film that is 100% practical and lacking any use of CGI. Director Scott Waugh (who chose to go practical due to his background in stunt work) and company use the lack of CGI to provide a pulse pounding experience for the audience, integrating different camera angles and techniques that completely immerse the audience into the experience of high octane car-racing. Several times throughout the movie my jaw was dropping at the unbelievably impressive stunt work, which kept me on the edge of my seat throughout and had me leaving with a big smile on my face. For a film called Need For Speed, Waugh wisely never lets his foot off the gas, constantly keeping the film’s heart rate up and building up the intensity, while still keeping things light enough so that the audience never stops having fun throughout.
One of the main questions surrounding this film is whether or not Aaron Paul can hold his own in a leading role for film after his incredible performance as Jesse Pinkman in the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad. While not high-caliber work by any means, Aaron Paul’s performance as Tobey Marshall is one that lends himself to some promise. Taking the script he was given (which will be touched upon in a moment), Paul finds a way to breathe life into this character, making him feel realistic and completely his own. At no point in the film do you see Aaron Paul or Jesse Pinkman; this is Tobey Marshall, a guy who was pushed to his limits in order to avenge his fallen friend. Paul brings a certain aura of cool and calm to this character while subtly showing the internal damage, creating a guy who the audience can truly empathize with and root for. There will be no Oscar on the mantle for Paul for this role (like the countless Emmy’s he was awarded for Pinkman), but his performance lends enough to show his presence as an emerging star.
However, the buck stops with Aaron Paul. In a film that focuses so much on providing high-octane action and a fast-paced thrill ride, story and interesting characters get left behind in a big way. Other than a couple of twists and turns, Need for Speed does nothing to reinvent the wheel plot-wise; it’s a classic revenge tale that follows the classic revenge tropes and plays out exactly how you would expect it to from the second it starts. There’s no intrigue in what’s going to happen next and therefore the whole thing comes off as just two hours of stunt work, which at a point toward the middle became a slight bit tedious. All of the supporting characters feel just as stock and recycled as the plot. Each of Tobey Marshall’s friends/co-owners play the stock best friend role; they attempt to provide the witty banter and have backstory that is only included so that when the plot needs to continue he can call upon them for assistance, such Kid Cudi’s character Benny being able to fly and get access to a military helicopter. Imogen Poots, playing the exotic car dealer Julia Maddon, does her best to try and break the character away from the stock “love interest,” but the unbelievably clichéd script locks her into that position, leaving her no room to breathe or to develop into something more.
Need for Speed is a film that knows what it is: a high-octane car racing revenge movie with plenty of stunt work and impressive practical effects. While some will leave the film underwhelmed, I left satisfied and surprisingly entertained. Aaron Paul brings likability and excellence to his role that brings it above the run-of-the-mill protagonist. However, a cliché-riddled and simplistic plot and one-dimensional supporting characters keep the film from reaching its full potential and from being a fresh take on the car-racing genre. That being said, go into this movie with your expectations where they should be and an entertaining thrill ride is what you will get.
Review by Nicholas Franco