In a last attempt to save his struggling garage, mechanic Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) reluctantly partners with a wealthy, arrogant ex-NASCAR driver Dino (Dominic Cooper). When car broker Julia Bonet (Imogen Poots) turns up, Tobey thinks his business is saved, however a disastrous, unsanctioned race results in Dino framing Tobey for manslaughter. 

 
 
 
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2.5 stars

Need for Speed doesn’t move fast but it is long. The only thing I knew about this car action movie pre-preview was that it was based on a video game and it had a moody poster image – all black and fire – where a handsome dude with burning eyes gripped the wheel of what I imagine is some sleek boutique machine, the cost of which would cover the monthly national debt repayments of a troubled first world principality.

Had I known what I was in for with Need for Speed, which is wonderful to look at and extremely hard to sit through, I would have brought a stopwatch and ear plugs. So armed I could have been able to scientifically estimate such important-to-know-before-you-see-the-movie things as the amount of screen time dedicated to dialogue scenes vs. the time spent trapped inside a vehicle travelling at an average of 200 miles per hour (320kms) racing other vehicles going just as fast on open roads not designed for anything more than a sanely comfortable cruising speed (average drivers – anonymous wimps they are - are road kill in this movie).

As it is I can only guess, but I reckon this two-hour (plus) movie has over 60 minutes of action, which is a recommendation of sorts because what passes for drama seems like an end less pit-stop. As for the ear-plugs I could do the plugs-in plugs-out test:Plugs out, the superbly detailed sound design is louder than stadium rock, louder than a power drill at ten paces, louder than anything Michael Bay has put his name to. Plugs in, I wager it’s still thunderous, my gut was still rumbling a half-hour after the movie and I can’t entirely blame its sickly sweetness for that.

"wonderful to look at and extremely hard to sit through"

The dude in the poster is the movie's hero Aaron Paul, who plays a body-shop proprietor from New Jersey called Tobey in a voice pitched so deep and rumbly it sounds a cross between a talking car and a bad gear change. In the story he’s a local legend, the fastest guy on four wheels, but an amateur. He’s also broke, bitter and eager to trade blows with Dino (Dominic Cooper) who is not only an old rival from the ‘hood but a pro in the race game, rich and in possession of an expensive looking haircut, and if that weren’t bad enough, he ‘stole’ Tobey’s girl Anita (Dakota Johnson). The plot revolves around revenge. Dino kills Anita’s brother Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) in a road race and frames Tobey. This tragedy could be anticipated by any viewer versed in the unique language of action cinema; which rules that the smiley kid with the boy-band hair cut is always dead meat. Tobey does two years of time and on release, vows payback. Meanwhile, Anita gets engaged to Tobey and he proffers her a gig as his receptionist.

From the gloss of Need for Speed you might surmise that it is boy-zone.  Its worse; it’s so male-centred it makes Transformers look progressive. All the women here are ‘chicks’ and true love means letting your daddy do the drivin’. There’s only a single scene that gets close to a conventional romantic moment with a kiss and it’s set in a hospital room where one of the characters involved – a woman - is recovering from a car wreck from which she had to be rescued by a more capable human being who happens to be the movie's hero.

The only thing that gets celebrated here is metal, speed and guys who drive fast. Tobey’s mates are an ethnically diverse support crew who primarily exist to provide jokes, fuel and a mobile cheer squad. Say what you like but the Walt Disney Company is right on top of its marketing.

Imogen Poots has the movie's one sizeable female role. She is Julia, a – actually I’m not certain what her career is;  minor story details like who, what, how, are lost in the wake of all the car porn. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut gives the look a pristine coat of eye-popping colour and perfect skin tones but the vehicles are photographed better than any sentient beings. He shoots cars the way old movie stars once were; larger than life things of glamour and status.

Whatever Julia does its clear it involves brokering high end deals for folks keen to pony up a cool three million for one-of-a-kind fast cars with short but indigestibly tangled brand names.

Poots is a funny, energetic actor who has a take-no-shit look in her eye and at least the script lets her talk car-talk with the boys. Sadly she is also called upon to scream whenever the action gets hot (which is a lot). She proves herself a worthy consort for Tobey by: a) risking her neck, and b) providing him with the hardware to beat Dino in the movie's denouement car duel, an invite only open road race where the contestants are the country’s fastest.

Director Scott Waugh was a stunt man and he’s got a fine sense of movie history. The style - and set pieces - are apparently a conscious homage to car movie greats like Bullitt, The Cannonball Run, and Driver. Even Michael Keaton’s character, a car guru called Monarch who stages the climactic race, seems a tribute to Vanishing Point. Throughout he acts as a kind of Greek chorus, posting his commentary on the plot online while rooting for Tobey all the way. Waugh has the smarts to let the actors take this stuff seriously enough so it isn’t laughable. He’s got a good eye for dreaming up scary thrills; a lot of time was spent developing camera rigs to get the car stuff ‘live’ (as opposed to CGI.) Still, Waugh and co.’s commitment to authenticity doesn’t extend to anything resembling good sense: the epic car carnage is wreckless, gleefully irresponsible and blood-free. In other words real life is not permitted to intrude until the end credits where a coolly worded message warns any aspiring agent of speed not to try any of this stuff at home.