What is an acceptable scale on which to judge a movie like Need for Speed? Fact is, no movie based on a video game has ever cracked over 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. So what can one expect heading into a flick like this? I’ll tell you– brute force action, real stunt driving, a few funny lines, and not much else. And as long as you’re not looking for Citizen Kane on wheels, that may be just fine.
The plot feels like an amalgamation of several Need for Speed games: Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) is Tobey Marshall, the quiet owner of a race car garage handed down through the generations, just trying to make ends meet. Tobey works with his best friends, who just happen to be some of the best racing mechanics in the country.
That’s not all– apparently, Tobey has made quite a name for himself as a race car driver throughout his life and is quietly making his rounds again on the underground circuit, much to the chagrin of professional car driver & millionaire playboy Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who shares a past with Tobey. When Dino accidentally kills Tobey’s friend in a crash during an unsanctioned street race and then frames Tobey for it, Marshall does 2 years in prison for manslaughter, just waiting for the day to get revenge on his nemesis.
Upon his release, Tobey immediately jumps parole and sets out to compete in the DeLeon, the Mecca of all secret street races, to beat out Dino, prove he is the best street racer in the world, and clear his name in the process.
There are several sideplots, a love story with Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later), and other characters involved (namely rapper Kid Cudi, who is surprisingly good comic relief), but why introduce more complexity into an already convoluted plot? Sure, Aaron Paul does his best to inject some humanity into the proceedings, but this movie is about action, pure and simple. And on that front, Need for Speed succeeds.
There seems to be very little CGI stuntwork in Need for Speed (as opposed to Fast & Furious or Gone In 60 Seconds); the driving is impressively visceral due to the very real stunts that are being performed. Sprinkle in some POV shots that make the audience feel like they’re behind the wheel and you have some of the most realistic and thrilling driving sequences the theaters have seen in a while. It felt very much like a well-executed video game, with explosive action sequences strung together by streamlined cutscenes that keep things moving.
But a handful of exciting set pieces does not make a movie, and there are reasons that few games translate well to the cinematic medium. Applying any sort of logic will ruin one’s suspension of disbelief in Need for Speed. Why are you driving performance race cars across the country, and in off-road scenarios? How did you get from New York City to San Francisco in 45 hours while only refueling twice? Why couldn’t you have picked better character names than Tobey Marshall and Dino Brewster?
If you lay these unsolved mysteries to rest, and better yet if you’re a fan of Aaron Paul, you may just enjoy yourself with Need for Speed. If you’re overly critical of racing movie revenge tales based on a video game franchise, skip it or wait for rental.