Need for Speed is in a tight spot. As a videogame adaptation it not only has to be a well made film, but also needs to please fans of the videogame series. It’s got to do an odd little dance where it needs to show just enough evidence of its origin without it becoming overbearing or it succumbs to the same problems as other videogame movies had in the past.
You can argue all day whether or not Need for Speed is unfairly held to a higher standard of quality thanks to the unbelievable amount of criticism videogame movies get already, but this is what we’ve got to work with. So I guess the ultimate question is: Does Need for Speed fulfill your needs?
Need for Speed
Directors: Scott Waugh
Release Date: March 14th, 2013
Since the Need for Speed videogames aren’t exactly known for their narrative caliber, the film had to come up with a story from scratch. If you have any familiarity with car films of the past (The Cannonball Run, Bullit, and most importantly, Smokey and the Bandit), you’ll feel at home here as NfS seeks to emulate the fun of those past films. The main problem here, however, is it stops just short of the finish line. Before I get into the synopsis, I do need to get something off my chest here. I’m a huge fan of racing films as I’ve been raised on them. There’s a certain air about them, a lighthearted fun, that’s entirely needed or they all just fall flat. If a car film takes itself too seriously, people will realize how ridiculous a film’s logic is when every character makes their decisions according to how fast their cars can drive.
So let’s get into Need for Speed‘s story. The film follows Tobey (Aaron Paul), a guy who’s running a failing auto shop with his friends after the death of his father threatens to forclose it. His former racing rival, Dino (Dominic Cooper), who’s currently dating Tobey’s ex-girlfriend, gets Tobey to build a Shelby Mustang for lots and lots of money. After Dino sells the Mustang, he decides to race Tobey and the comic relief Pete, and during that race kills Pete. After serving two years in prison for being framed for the death of his friend, Tobey vows to enter The Deleon, a super secret race run by The Monarch (Michael Keaton) and avenge Pete’s death.
See what I’m talking about? Need for Speed‘s main constraint is that it’s a film whose engine needs work. It’s got so many ideas and themes, it becomes needlessly convoluted leaving most ideas without expansion. And what is explored feels entirely hokey because you have the dramatic tension of vengeance juxtaposed with how cartoonish the physics work within the film. Don’t get me wrong, it is possible to work with a serious tone (i.e. The Fast and The Furious) but most folks will walk away from the film feeling lost at how goofy the end product is (i.e. The Fast and The Furious). But the saddest aspect of watching all of this go down is, when the film truly lets loose and has fun, Need for Speed is a great movie.
There are brief glimpses of brilliance hidden within this murky mess. If you’re like me and are a little tired of how CG has taken over, then you’ll love NfS‘s reliance on practical effects. When Need for Speed explores its various stunts, it’s the Smokey and the Bandit of the modern era. There are long car chases, two big jumps (one involving a helicopter), cute nicknames for each of the vehicles (“Beauty,” “Beast,” and one “Smokey” tossed in for good measure in case you didn’t catch the homage), and the police officers are competent. And that’s actually a big deal, cop competency. I’ve grown tired of recent street racing films as the heroes have gotten so driving proficient, the police officers look like fools as they’re constantly thrashing about on the wayside. But it’s notably different here as some of the best stunts in the film are because the police are so good at what they do. It’s a refreshing change of pace.
Unfortunately as noted, those fun bursts are few too far in between. One of my personal rules as a critic is to never argue a film is “too long” as that’s always a judgment deep rooted in personal taste. But it just seems applicable here. Need for Speed feels like three movies in one that were stitched together into Frankenstein’s Monster. On principal alone, a film titled Need for Speed should not exceed two hours as it does. No matter how invested you may be in the characters (as hard as that may be to believe), by the time Tobey gets to race in the Deleon, you realize you have to watch another 20 minutes of driving before you actually get to leave the theater.
As far as videogame adaptations go, there are certainly much worse out there (as there are only slight homages to the game series). But the few instances of fun to be had are not worth sitting through the rest of it. Aaron Paul and crew do the best with what they have to work with, but it’s nowhere near enough. If you’re expecting a cheesefest, you may find it here, but it’s been done better elsewhere too. With all of that said, Need for Speed sits firmly in the middle of the pack. It’s good enough to start the race, but nowhere near good enough to finish in first place.