‘Need for Speed’ Review: Clunky and Sputtering to the Finish Line

By  · Published on March 13th, 2014

Need for Speed, I’ve seen all the Fast & Furious films. I know the Fast & Furious films. The Fast & Furious films are friends of mine. Need for Speed, you’re no Fast & Furious.

The name may come from the popular video game franchise, but director Scott Waugh and his cohorts are unmistakably shooting for a piece of that F&F pie. Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t have a tenth of the brazenness, the chewy homoeroticism, or the un-self-conscious fun of even the least of its inspirations (no, it’s not even better than the fourth F&F).

Aaron Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a mechanic and street racing savant who, through a series of unnecessarily complicated events, gets framed for vehicular manslaughter. As soon as he steps out of prison, he breaks parole and heads off to take revenge on the one who wronged him: former friend Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Rather than taking a tire iron to Dino’s head or some similarly straightforward action, Tobey plots to earn his way into the DeLeon, a top-secret race held only for the studliest drivers with the most expensive cars. Dino, a previous winner, is competing again, and Tobey wants to beat him and earn the millions in prize money. Assisting him are a trio of friends (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, and Ramón Rodriguez) and a love interest named Julia (Imogen Poots).

Return to Fast & Furious for a moment. Imagine if the first film had tried to be what Fast Five was – an epic-length ensemble piece. That’s what Need for Speed is doing. It runs an unconscionable 130 minutes, acting as though the audience has a preexisting affection for the characters when in reality there is none. Worse is that it has little idea of how to make good use of those characters. A big deal is made of bringing Malek’s reluctant Finn back into the fold, but he ends up contributing jack to the story. Even the most necessary member of the team, the eyes-in-the-sky pilot Benny (Mescudi) is more of a plot device than anything else.

The leads aren’t much better than the supporters. Poots gets some fun moments (in one scene, the very British actress throws on a purposefully ridiculous southern accent), but is present almost solely so that Paul has someone to talk to, and is ultimately reduced to a spectator for the final event. In fact, this is the fate of every character besides Tobey, leading one to wonder why they are there at all. As for Paul, it’s hard to evaluate his performance, since he’s given so little to emote over. Tobey is almost a parody of the taciturn action movie leading man, a total blank of a persona who is defined by his abilities and nothing else.

Without the bloated cast, that horrible runtime would feel even emptier than it already does. This is a film that takes something like a half hour to instigate its plot. A full sequence is devoted to dodging traffic in a small New York town. A bounty set on the protagonist’s head results in the consequence of one action scene and nothing else. What’s more, this alleged racing movie is far more about a road trip to get to the actual race. Said trip feels strangely relaxed, given that it is a quest for vengeance and the leads are wanted fugitives.

When the movie finally gets down to the business of vehicular mayhem, it can be reasonably entertaining. It has a laudable commitment to practical effects and car work. And yet even this action feels muted. The film seems reticent to attempt anything daring. There are no money shot stunts that make the viewer grip the arm rests or feel genuinely worried for the people on screen. It doesn’t help that every sequence is riddled with the most generic sort of hoo-rah one-liners.

Need for Speed is so busy and loud that, if not watched vigilantly, it could be mistaken for something fun. But it is a shambling lemon. That noise is the machinery dying a coughing, sputtering death, overworked by mechanics who do not understand how to run a true vehicle of entertainment.

The Upside: There is fun to be had in scattered moments and sequences.

The Downside: Could easily drop fifty minutes and five characters without losing anything of importance.

On the Side: This year is the 20th anniversary of the first “Need For Speed” game.