Based on a popular video game, Need for Speed is, for all its flashy modern trappings, essentially a B-movie, of the kind that used to skid across drive-in screens regularly back in the ‘70s. Slickly produced, swathed in shiny digital textures and looking as colourful and enticing as a candy bar wrapper, it’s clearly way more expensive than its forebears, and can’t match the honourably trashy, down-to-earth ethics of something like White Lightning (1973) or Death Race 2000 (1976), but it’s such a beguiling mix of the breezy and the speedy it earns its spurs. The impetus to make this probably came as much from the Fast and Furious series as from the game’s popularity, but Need For Speed bears more than a passing resemblance to Vanishing Point (1971), as it follows a sympathetic but heedlessly focused driver defying law and nature trying to race across the American landscape in two days, aided by a friendly voice in a broadcasting booth somewhere. The story beats, however, reject the fashionable individual-against-the-system tilt of the model and go back to the primal elements of melodrama, dredging up good old-fashioned railroaded justice and revenge to motivate our hero Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) to take on the bad guy and drive his way to victory, man. Hell, never mind Steve McQueen or Burt Reynolds: it’s easy enough to imagine Richard Barthelmess and Ricardo Cortez starring in this, in some imagined black-and-white Howard Hawks quickie of the ‘30s.
At the outset, upstate New Yorker Tobey has inherited his father’s custom car-building garage and employs a team of stalwart pals, but his victories in illegal street races don’t reap enough cash to keep the business going. An old rival from the local scene, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who’s become a car dealer and well-regarded race driver, gives Tobey a lifeline, by asking him to finish building a refurbished, seriously souped-up Ford Mustang started by deceased engineering legend Carrol Shelby. Tobey’s team produce a brilliant racer. Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), a buying agent and expert car appraiser who works for English collector, Bill Ingram (Stevie Ray Dallimore), agrees to purchase the car for millions after Tobey proves it can make superlative speeds. Dino, offended that Tobey ignored his command to not drive the car, dares Tobey and his young pal Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) to race him on the street in a pair of imported Ageras. When it becomes clear both are going to beat him, Dino rams the rear of Pete’s car and accidentally sends his car flying off a bridge. Tobey distraughtly returns to the crash site but Dino shoots through. Tobey is blamed for the accident and imprisoned for manslaughter. Four years later, when he’s released on parole, Tobey naturally has payback on his mind and glory to seek. He convinces Ingram to loan him the Mustang, as he plans to enter it into a highly illegal and dangerous “De Leon” street race organised annually by the mysterious millionaire dubbed Monarch (Michael Keaton), who webcasts enthusiastically on his favourite racers, and acts quite like one of the old “benshis” who narrated and spelt out morals in Japanese noh theatre and silent cinema. Tobey knows he has to impress Monarch enough to earn an invitation to the race, which he only knows will be held in California, so he begins a high-speed, cross-country dash eluding police and Dino’s bounty hunters all the way, showing off with some free-form fancy driving to attract Monarch’s attention. And Julia invites herself along for the ride with Tobey to protect her investment.
You probably already know by reading this synopsis if this is just not your cup of Earl Grey. But Need for Speed has garrulous, straight-arrow pizzazz and a pleasing lack of shame in purveying its over-the-top genre buzz that overcame my objections. Objections I had, to the cheesy insta-exposition Monarch spouts, and to the sometimes cringe-worthy disregard for public safety we’re expected to swallow. The film needs a lot more of that quickly sketched marginalia that ‘70s genre cinema was so good at - the goitred redneck sheriffs, the random weirdos from diverse pan-continental cultures, the teeming human comedy of American life. The unlikely escapades of Tobey’s flyer pal Benny (Scott Mescudi), who spots clear patches of road for him from a Cessna, but also somehow manages to talk an Army buddy into lending him a helicopter that proves handy at one juncture, provide excessive silliness. And that’s frustrating because, in its way, Need for Speed does otherwise stay true to the earthbound, high-speed, antisocial vicissitudes of the classic drive-in crash-and-bash fare it recalls. Nor does the film bend as far backward as the Fast and Furious films have to prove street cred: indeed, it could well be offering a little deflating satire on those films' glamorisation of gearhead lifestyle as a ticket to a badass high life, as a bunch of models snort derisively at the pick-up attempts of mere mechanics. This was produced by Dreamworks and there’s a faint flicker, as there was in the first, tolerable Transformers film (2007), of the old Spielbergian ethic here, as the film tosses some likeable actors together playing clichéd but defined characters and bothers to try and gets us on their side. Paul does a good embattled hero, Cooper gives good oily creep, and that’s all we need to give the film that basic pulpy charge required to forgive its trespasses.
Helmsman Scott Waugh is a former stuntman whose debut as director Act of Valor (2011) hardly set the world on fire, but his work here is slick and visually coherent, for the most part avoiding dizzying edits and jerking camerawork, and going for reflex-fast filmmaking that nonetheless has some classical elegance to it in tracing lines of motion of fast-moving objects painted in the same colours as the average preschool's walls. This pays off in some dazzling moments of technical cinema, particularly Pete’s crash, filmed in slow motion, young dreamer launched into zero gravity for a few precious seconds of transcendence before hitting the ground in a fireball, and a terrifically unexpected crash late in the film that throws the story, and our heroes, for a loop. Probably the main draw for anyone who’s not 13 years old or a terminal petrol head here, however, would be the intrigue factor of seeing Paul, everybody’s main man from his work on Breaking Bad (2008-13), try his hand at anchoring a too-cool action film. Paul’s an unusual choice in that regard, as a low-key and realistic actor possessing neither the looks of a Tom Cruise nor the magnetic bearish appeal of Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson. But with his supple expressive register is on display throughout, Paul is more emotionally convincing than those guys, and he even invests a character based on a mass of pixels with expressive alertness: he actually does seem to be in pain in the moments when he lets down his taciturn guard and lets his loss and the wrongs done to him register. Tobey, although he knows how good he is and doesn’t mind showing it, also thankfully isn’t one of the breed of obnoxiously macho, one-upping heroes too many recent films have.
Perhaps the chief pleasure of Need for Speed lies in how Paul and his supporting cast actually seem to be having a good time, particularly from Poots and Rami Malek as one of Tobey’s crew, Finn. Julia is introduced posing as an airheaded posh bird to lead Tobey and Pete on whilst assessing their vehicular prowess, but quickly shows her chops as a gearhead and leaps gleefully into the fray with Tobey, hanging out the window to help Finn with on-the-move refuelling and duelling with bounty hunters at high speed. Poots gets to pull the same gag Katia Winter did in The Banshee Chapter (2014) in slipping from home county class into her best good ole gal accent as the moment demands. Malek, who’s been hovering in the background lately (The Master, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, both 2012) has one great scene that gives Need for Speed the right kind of sauntering, adolescent cheek, as Finn’s taken a job working in a cubicle office for some corporation, but when his friends pull up outside with a super car and a host of cops on their tails, he quits his job and makes sure he can’t come back, strips off all his clothes save for a pair of multi-coloured socks, snogs his office crush and swaps brief confirmations of mutual humanity with a middle-aged fellow employee in the elevator (“I’m in accounting.” “Does it feel like you’re dying inside?” “Yes.”). In the wrong hands this moment might have seemed unbearably crass, but here it’s emblematic of the film’s brash and general, if more than slightly reckless good-humour. There’s a nominal love triangle between Tobey, Julia, and Anita (a rather fazed-looking Dakota Johnson), Pete’s sister and Tobey’s former girlfriend who’s since become Dino’s concubine, in a subplot that has a reason for existing narrative-wise but never feels remotely interesting. But on the whole, even if this is pretty dumb, it’s a charming kind of dumb, and it could well stand as the best video game adaptation yet made – a very low bar, admittedly.