Monday, March 17, 2014

"Need for Speed" (2014)

Starring Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper and Imogen Poots
Written by George Gatins
Directed by Scott Waugh
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language, brief nudity
Running Time: 130 Minutes

Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a racer, but he lives squarely in the small-time. Together with his friends Benny (Scott 'Kid Cudi' Mescudi), Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), Finn (Rami Malek) and Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), he runs an auto shop in a small town in New York that used to belong to his father. Now, he's behind on his payments and the bank is threatening to foreclose. That's when Tobey is paid a visit by his longtime rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) who once stole Tobey's girlfriend and then made it into the pro-racing circuit, leaving Tobey behind in the dust.

Dino, it seems, has acquired a legendary car: the last Ford Mustang built by the famed Carroll Shelby, incomplete at the time of Shelby's death. Dino says there's no one more qualified to finish the car than Tobey, and he intends to sell it for a cool $3 million and give Tobey a cut of the profit. Desperate for the money, despite his hatred of Dino, Tobey agrees to do the work. But when Tobey steals Dino's thunder by test-driving the car for the buyer, Dino is furious and challenges Tobey to a race.

A race that kills young Pete. Dino uses his power and connections to pin the death on Tobey, who gets sentenced to two years for manslaughter. But when he gets out, Tobey has a plan. He convinces the buyer of the Mustang to let him borrow it to compete in a secret illegal street race against Dino. He gathers his old crew, and a new addition: Julia (Imogen Poots), the buyer's personal assistant, along for the ride to ensure that Tobey follows through on his promise and doesn't make off with the car.

The only problem is, they've only got 45 hours to drive the Shelby Mustang from New York to California. Not only are the cops on the lookout for Tobey, but Dino has posted an exquisite bounty on Tobey's head - a $3 million Lamborghini to whoever can stop Tobey from making it to California.

Videogame adaptations are somewhat notorious in Hollywood. With few exceptions, one is hard pressed to name a videogame adaptation that stands on its own as a good film. Plenty of them are good for their camp value (I'm looking at you, "Street Fighter") but the overwhelming majority are films that range in quality from mediocre to just awful.

How does "Need for Speed" fare? It leans toward the former. There's a breezy ease to much of the film, which helps liven things up a bit. But mostly, "Need for Speed" just feels undercooked. It's not really a problem with the cast or any of the racing sequences, but there's something lacking here.

Car enthusiasts are likely to enjoy the film's racing and chasing sequences... and then cringe at their inevitably destructive ends. Director Scott Waugh, to his credit, eschews computer generated effects in favor of using real stunt drivers and real cars, and the evidence is there on the screen. These are not Toyota Camry's being smashed, flipped and crunched here. The Koenigsegg Agera alone costs over $1 million for the base model. So fans who can't bear to see their beloved objects of desire blown to bits may find themselves gripping their chair arms.

Director Waugh and writer George Gatins allow for some variety in the chases by setting them in disparate locations, then let the stunt drivers go wild. There are highway straightaways, urban environments, winding California countryside and even an off-road chase through the desert. All with the requisite roaring engines and crunching fenders one expects from a film like this. The use of real cars is a boon to these sequences, and Waugh isn't afraid to put the camera on the dash for some of them - both a thrilling way to get the audience into the driver's seat and a nod to the film's videogame roots.

Ultimately, though, these sequences are really the best parts of the film. The story itself feels underdeveloped. We're given hints at the long rivalry between Tobey and Dino, but we're never really sure what happened between them. A scene in which Anita (Dakota Johnson) helps Tobey late in the film has her sporting a black eye... and no mention is made of it.

Much of the cast is having more fun than the script probably deserves, mostly the fellows playing Tobey's crew. They mostly exist to support Tobey and provide a good chunk of the film's comic relief, and they somewhat succeed. A scene in which Finn quits his job to rejoin the team on the way to California is the movie's funniest bit. Dominic Cooper sure seems to be enjoying himself playing the slimy villain Dino, but there's no real meat to the role beyond his slick evilness.

The same goes for Paul, who does a lot of glowering, but really puts himself into it when the script does give him something to chew on. His anguish over the death of Little Pete recalls some of Paul's tortured work on "Breaking Bad," but these moments of depth are few and far between in "Need for Speed."

Interestingly, the film features a few nods to similar long-haul chase movies of the past. In particular, Michael Keaton's role as "Monarch," the mysterious organizer of the race, reminds me a lot of Cleavon Little's Super Soul character in "Vanishing Point," and Tobey and his Shelby feel like nods to "Gone in 60 Seconds." There are probably even more that I missed, and more knowledgeable genre enthusiasts may pick up on them.

At 130 minutes, "Need for Speed" is too long, and it still somehow feels not particularly well developed. It gets a lot of points from me for its stunts and driving sequences, but the rest is pure meh. As far as videogame adaptations go, it's still one of the better ones. The action sequences mostly deliver on their promise, but one might still be better served by firing up the Playstation or Xbox.