‘Need for Speed’ Also Has Need for a Better Script

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – In interviews to promote the movie, Aaron Paul has said that he was chosen by Steven Spielberg himself to be the lead in this high-speed action thriller, while the executive producer was binge-watching “Breaking Bad”. Those are certainly some undeniable cool points that I can’t blame him for mentioning, regardless of how the movie is received. 

It’s an understandable decision, even if it was based solely on Paul’s formidable work on the award-winning AMC series. He may be a solid choice to play an expert street racer, but Spielberg and the other bigwigs at DreamWorks should’ve been more selective with who they chose for screenwriting duties. If the studio was attempting their own shot at a “Fast and Furious” franchise, they could’ve at least brought in a co-writer to help out with characterization and dialogue. But, considering this a movie based on over twenty popular video games from Electronic Arts, all we can really anticipate are some amazing stunt work and an obscene amount of collateral damage.

After the death of his father, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is left to keep Marshall Motors, the family body shop in upstate New York afloat. He may have a reliable and talented crew, but the bank is calling and he could sure use the money. An opportunity arises when longtime rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) offers them a gig restoring a particularly famous Shelby Mustang. Despite bad blood with Dino, who’s currently dating Tobey’s ex, Anita (a wasted Dakota Johnson), taking a surmountable cut of the vehicle’s lofty sale price is too hot to pass up.  

Aaron Paul
Tobey (Aaron Paul) Has the Itch in ‘Need for Speed’
Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Once the job is done, an envious Dino invites Tobey and Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), his groupie and Anita’s younger brother, to a friendly competitive race of Koenigsegg Ageras along highways and open roads. It ends disastrously with Dino purposefully flipping Little Pete to a fiery demise, leaving Tobey to blame and sending him to prison for two years. 

When he gets out, Tobey has two things on his mind: revenge and racing. He calls the owner of that Shelby Mustang up and offers to race it on the DeLeon, a invitation only outdoor race that Dino will be driving in, hosted by Monarch (Michael Keaton), an eccentric and reclusive host. A deal is made, requiring Tobey to reluctantly accept automotive analyst/dealer, Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots) as his passenger. The two set out on a cross-country trek to California to enter the race, trailed by his loyal pals, Joe (Ramón Rodríguez), Finn (Rami Malek) on land and pilot Benny (Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi) offering overhead assistance in the air. With Tobey breaking parole, the authorities cast a nationwide net, making the road trip to DeLeon an intense one. Add to that Dino putting a price on Tobey’s head and the potential for death, incarceration and vehicular damage is high. 

Let’s just get this out of the way, director Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”) made this movie with one thing in mind - providing frenetic chase sequences and adrenalized stunt work.   It makes sense, considering he’s spent years performing or overseeing movie stunts (“The Italian Job” and “Bad Boys II”, to name a few) and Waugh (who also co-edits) and with his “Act of Valor” cinematographer, Shane Hurlbut, indeed makes a well-choreographed and crisp-looking movie that utilizes 3D effectively (stuff flies everywhere!). If you’re going solely for some fine-looking reckless racing and elaborate wreckage, you’ll be satisfied.

That’ll be where the satisfaction ends though. For all the cool driver POV shots, fancy Go-Pro work and genuinely amazing crashes, “Need for Speed” wipes out with its weak characters and nonsensical plotting. First-time screenwriter George Gatins (who’s previously worked as an executive producer of rom-coms) definitely could’ve used a more seasoned writer to guide him or the studio execs should’ve at least called in a script doctor. 

Outside the use of recycled archetypes, the most egregious plothole is the movie’s pivotal moment - the death of Little Pete. Just so you know, I’m giving absolutely nothing away here. From the moment we meet the eager and naive Pete, it’s clear he’s going to die (if Gilbertson was a better actor, working with a better script, we might care), but how Dino gets away with murder is flat out insulting to viewers. Gatins wants us to believe the story that is being spun in the aftermath of the crash, that there was only two drivers. Dino has crafted alibis for his whereabouts and police are unable to find any witnesses to a race that involved three incredible loud and expensive race cars along an interstate highway that ended up on a small town bridge. 

Not only are we supposed to be that dumb and go along with this ridiculousness, but we’re also supposed to just go along and believe that the world Gatins has built here is just that stupid. Dino’s car was fiery red and the car Little Pete was driving was pure white. Gatins obviously never got in an accident, or he’d know that paint scratches and leaves marks on other vehicles. I know. Mind-blowing concept. Not to mention there would’ve been three tire tracks on the asphalt and there certainly were several bystanders who witnessed mass injuries and vehicular damage. 

Again, with this preposterous element of the story being the impetus of all the action that follows, it’s ludicrous how Gatins and Waugh thought the audience would just go along for the ride. Well, the ride is all this movie is about. That, and promoting Mustangs   (along with other expensive cars we can’t afford) and, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of self-promotion on Waugh’s part, we see the camera rest on a spinner rack full of DVDs at a truck stop that conveniently displays “Act of Valor”. How clever. 

But what about the acting? Will fervent fans of “Breaking Bad” easily downward shift and support Paul in this genre-specific feature? For the love of Jesse Pinkman, I hope not. Paul has an agreeable presence here - almost fitting the silent, tortured soul driver the movie wants him to be - but this material is glaringly weak. Just about every move these characters make is predictable. Granted, I didn’t foresee the moment where Rami Malek stripped naked while as his character exits his corporate gig in Detroit. Yeah, I didn’t see that Michael Bay moment coming, nor did I want to.

Need for Speed
Action Sequence in ‘Need for Speed’
Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures

So, no real standouts with the acting in “Need for Speed”, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. I will admit though to being thoroughly entertained watching Keaton do that zany, manic thing he does so well. It almost makes the rumored “Beetlejuice” sequel a desirable prospect. This movie also reminded me what an enjoyable and natural screen presence Imogen Poots has. It’s hard to forget her name, but from the moment I noticed her in Neil Marshall’s “Centurion”, she has provided a memorable presence in the movies she’s been in. And then there’s Kid Cudi as the stereotypical rapper-turned-actor supplying comedy relief. No surprise there. Probably the biggest letdown in the acting department is seeing the versatile Dominic Cooper (from “Captain America” and “The Devil’s Double”), who is left to pout and brood with his bad haircut. 

It’s no doubt the loud and slick “Need for Speed” will have a strong box-office presence opening weekend, but it will most likely lose gas int he weeks to follow. I could go on with more auto puns, but let’s remember that it took the “Fast and Furious” franchise five movies for it to be as successful as it is. It’s unlikely “Need for Speed” will warrant sequels, but then again there are moviegoers who will gladly sit in a theater, cast away all logic and lose themselves in the immersive video game qualities of a movie like this. Just keep in mind, that’s all this movie will do.

“Need for Speed” opens everywhere on March 14th. Featuring Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Dakota Johnson, Imogen Poots and Michael Keaton. Screenplay by George Gatins. Directed by Scott Waugh. Rated “R”

By David Fowlie

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