The Fast and Furious franchise is a triumph in disposable summer entertainment; the most recent entry was my eighth favorite movie of 2013. The series began a little too self-serious, the way that most action movies tend to. But eventually the filmmakers realized that they weren’t making high art, which ironically lifted the quality of their output. Those films stopped being about racing a long time ago, rightly choosing instead to focus on the superhero Vin Diesel has become both on- and off-screen. Need for Speed attempts to fill that racing-based void, while trying to capitalize on the established films’ popularity. Early box office reports don’t look good for a potential franchise, but that is not necessarily indicative of the film itself.
Need for Speed is not a good movie. The pacing in the first act is interminable, and the story moments are just as much of a slog, but I will be damned if I did not find myself having a good time while watching it. Most of this comes from the expertly crafted practical racing scenes. There is very little CGI in the film, and the resulting whole benefits greatly from this.
But before we get to that we have to break down the story: Aaron Paul plays a guy who likes to drive fast. He is assisted in this endeavor by his buddies, Blackguy (Scott Mescudi, who I have just now learned is Kid Cudi), Toothpick (Ramon Rodriguez), Goofster (Rami Malek), and Dirtyshirt (Harrison Gilbertson? What a name). Paul’s old rival Squints (Dominic Cooper) comes back into town and soon enough a race is underway with tragic results for Paul and his merry band of mechanics. You might remember all of this from the movie’s trailer, which establishes in the first 15 seconds what Need for Speed drags out for 30 minutes. I don’t blame the movie for its marketing (there are one or two cool moments the trailer does actually spoil), but in this instance the advertising team was right to cut to the chase, because Need for Speed is boring as hell until Paul finds this new motivation to drive his actions (pun!).
The movie is assisted in interest-ification by the infusion of Imogen Poots as Toughchick. None of these characters are unique, but the performances are enjoyable. All of a sudden there is a camaraderie among the team that I guess formed while Paul’s character was away. Luckily the arrival of Poots also brings some life out of Paul, who seems legitimately bored by the entire project until she shows up. The movie kicks into gear (puns!) here. Between the banter and the seriously cool stunts, it is almost like watching a good movie.
Then we get to the themes. Need for Speed tries to do for “honor” what the Fast and Furious films have done for “family,” but they just haven’t earned it. And when the movie gets too bogged down in revenge and justice and serious dialogue and racing logistics (courtesy of an almost-Beetlejuician Michael Keaton, who continues the strangest career resurgence of the new millennium) it is like the entire production hits the brakes (punss!).
I give the picture propers for at least trying. It is not as if the source material gave the filmmakers anything substantial to work with (besides first person views through a windshield). Unfortunately screenwriter George Gatins tries a little too hard to give his characters meaningful history. It is only with Gatins’ acceptance of the heightened reality necessitated by the story’s particulars that things really speed up (punsss!). Paul and Poots both deserve better than what they are given here, but director Scott Waugh puts in a lot of work to at least make it fun for them. Who knows, Need for Speed could be a great franchise in 10 years. I mean, it won’t be, but there are seeds of quality entertainment embedded in the movie. They just need the proper fuel to take off (punssss!).