Once upon a time, videogame adaptation Need For Speed could have been a Tom Cruise movie, and not just because its title also happens to be a line from Top Gun. As stand-up comedian Rich Hall once pointed out – brilliantly – in one of his routines, all of Tom Cruise’s 80s and 90s movies were broadly the same, and can be summed up thus: “He’s a race car driver. A pretty good race car driver, too. Until he has a crisis of confidence and can’t race cars anymore. Then he meets a good-looking woman who talks him into being a better race car driver.”
Need For Speed’s petrol-head protagonist Tobey Marshall (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) is a hero in the Tom Cruise mould: he’s a race car driver. He’s a pretty good race driver, too. But then he has a crisis of confidence…
When the film begins, Tobey’s an illegal street racer whose garage is in danger of going bust because he can’t afford to pay the bank manager. Then an old high school nemesis, the unfeasibly rich Dino (Dominic Cooper) rolls up with a job offer: fix up a $2m Shelby Mustang, and he can keep 25 per cent of the proceeds from the sale. Backed into a corner, Tobey reluctantly agrees, despite the warnings of his wacky fellow mechanics. Thus begins a chain of events which lead to further enmity between Tobey and Dino – and an awful lot of racing.
Stuntman and director Scott Waugh (Act Of Valor) executes his driving scenes extremely well, eschewing the obvious CG and pounding music of the Fast & Furious franchise for an approach that’s a bit closer to car movies of the 60s, 70s and 80s (Bullitt even appears on a drive-in movie screen near the start). This doesn’t mean that Need For Speed doesn’t stretch the boundaries of physical possibility, however; although the tanks, planes and gigantic explosions of the more recent Fast entries are absent, there are still moments where cars fly over colossal ramps and then land without giving the occupants so much as a neck twinge.
In terms of drama, Need For Speed is on rougher terrain. Aaron Paul has just the right screen persona to play a stir-crazy driving enthusiast – charismatic, edgy, sardonic – but the script gives him surprisingly few lines of memorable dialogue. This is something of a mistake, given that he was at his best as the garrulous, expressive Jessie in Breaking Bad. Here, he’s the “strong silent type”, as one character puts him – in other words, a wild-eyed cipher with little to say. Dominic Cooper is similarly two-dimensional as his mortal enemy, Dino – though that’s partly because he’s only in a handful of scenes.
The most thankless role in the film, though, is Julia, played by Imogen Poots. She has little to do other than sit in the passenger seat and stare adoringly at Aaron Paul for much of the duration, and while she is given a few scenes where she gets to do a bit of her own driving and running about, Poots’ primary function is to give the hero someone to talk to during his long car journeys.
Then there’s Michael Keaton, who’s extraordinarily weird as the enigmatic Monarch, who organises underground races via a laptop and rambles things into his webcam like, “Wake up and smell the $2m Lambo in your pocket”, and “Maybe the tart was right!”
Zany characters like Keaton, in front of his computer with his shooting glasses on, and other colourful comic-relief sidekick types, like Scott Mescudi, who flies everywhere in stolen helicopters, sit oddly with the moments of high drama, lurching car collisions and somewhat cringe-making scenes of solemnity. It takes a skilled writer to move a story between moments of light and shade, and Need For Speed doesn’t always manage it; instead, it feels like a script that was once high on pure soap operatics that’s had certain scenes rewritten to provide a moment or two of levity.
Fortunately, it’s the racing we’re paying to see, and it’s here that Need For Speed pulls ahead. There’s a real sense of speed and danger to the best sequences, with some solid, unfussy cinematography from Shane Hurlbut, while the sound design picks out the chatter and whine of exotic engines being pushed to their limits.
Need For Speed isn’t in the same league as the classic car racing movies it references, but as pure, high-octane entertainment, it just about provides the crashes and thrills you’d expect.
Need For Speed is out in UK cinemas on the 12th March.
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