Although Need for Speed is based on a long series of video games going back to 1994, to watch it is to know, with perfect clarity, that it owes much more to the Fast & Furious film franchise, with action typecasts defying gravity and recklessly breaking speed laws in souped-up muscle cars. To watch it is also to know that it doesn’t even remotely approach what the Fast & Furious films have achieved, and this goes beyond the decision to have it released in 3D. Here is a movie so overwhelmingly implausible on every conceivable level that its very existence is an affront to human intelligence.
It has action sequences that will make your ears throb and your eyes sore. Worse still, it has sections, both loud and quiet, of mind-boggling narrative stupidity.
Now, you may think I have no right to complain. I have, after all, given passing grades to the Fast & Furious films, which are just as preposterous in their plotting and character development. Yes, but those films actually work with the audience, playing off the common knowledge that everything we’re looking at and listening to is utterly absurd. They’re fun to watch because they’re self-aware and have nothing to prove. Need for Speed is like the kid on the playground that eats worms just to get a few fleeting moments of attention. Were it not for its need to compulsively show off, to be loud and goofy and unheeding, it would have no angle of approach at all. To appreciate this movie, you must suppress any desire to use your brain. If you easily grow erect at the sound of engines revving, all the better.
The plot is exceedingly simple, and exists primarily to string together frenetic scenes of cars doing impossible and illegal maneuvers. It begins when Tobey Marshall, a blue-collar mechanic from a sleepy Upstate New York town (Aaron Paul), is challenged to a street race by his old rival, the rich and entitled Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Tobey accepts the challenge, but only because the recent death of his father has left him seriously in debt, and Dino promises to make it worth his while if he wins. Unfortunately, Tobey’s dearest friend, the childishly innocent Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), also takes part in the race, and Dino causes his death by ramming his car, causing it to flip over and burst into flames. Dino drives away, leaving Tobey to take the rap. He’s found guilty of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to prison.
Upon his release two years later, Tobey immediately sets into motion his plan for revenge against Dino. With the help his garage buddies, he immediately breaks parole and zooms his way out of New York in a Mustang he had a hand in restoring and making the world’s fastest. His blatant disregard for the other drivers on the road would have prevented him from escaping the city, let alone the state, but never mind. The acquisition of his ride, which had been sold two years earlier to a British car mogul, coincides with the acquisition of his inevitable love interest, the mogul’s colleague, Julia (Imogen Poots). They rocket cross country, attracting cops in several cities yet always managing to elude them, heading for San Francisco, where Tobey and Dino will square off in an annual underground street race. But Tobey has to hurry; the race begins in less than forty-eight hours, and Dino has put a bounty on Tobey’s car, bringing money-hungry hunters out of the woodwork.
This race is hosted by a webcaster known only as Monarch (Michael Keaton), who can best be described as Wolfman Jack’s evil twin. Given what the final act reveals, there’s not a chance in hell that Monarch would be able to make his race an annual tradition. There is, for one thing, the fact that the cops always catch wind of it and spend the entire time in pursuit. This means that, when the race ends, as it has to eventually, there’s no way the drivers could escape being arrested. Top that off with the fact that the less qualified drivers don’t simply fall behind; they’re rammed by other drivers, causing their cars to dramatically crash. With definite injuries and possible deaths, the remaining drivers would at some point be placed under arrest. So too would Monarch, who makes no effort to hide his identity. How he got away with this even once is beyond comprehension.
So too is Tobey’s friend Benny (Scott Mescudi), who acts as Tobey’s eyes in the sky, always being on the lookout for traffic jams and police blockades in commandeered helicopters. His methods of acquiring different types of helicopters, from military aircrafts to news choppers, are left a little obscure, and it’s never explained how he can hop from city to city at the same rate as Tobey and know immediately where he is. And what call was there for a scene of Tobey’s other friend, Finn (Rami Malek), quitting his desk job in Detroit by stripping completely naked and casually walking out of his office building? The very concept is at best barely amusing, and the joke is allowed to carry on past its point of expiration. For director Scott Waugh, who previously co-directed the reprehensible war film Act of Valor, Need for Speed is a new low.
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