Walking into a movie with little to no expectations is one of the most freeing feelings in the world. While I don’t often subscribe to the “turn your brain off and enjoy it mantra,” I am generally able to enjoy any movie, so long as there is some semblance of thoughtful filmmaking in play. That may seem like a loaded term, but it is quite simplistic at its core – when I watch a movie, I want to see that the cast and crew excelled at something, shooting at least a bit higher than the standard paycheck collecting fare that we tend to see in the first three months of the year. This is oftentimes too much to ask for between January and March, as the films that were not good enough for Oscar season tend to be pushed to January and February, and March is the wasteland of pseudo-blockbusters that did not merit the vaunted ‘summer blockbuster’ label. Need for Speed appeared to be a textbook example of the latter, yet the allure of Aaron Paul and CGI-free stunt-work nevertheless pulled me into the theater.
Need for Speed, based upon an EA Series that will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary this summer, is essentially a paint-by-numbers revenge flick revolving around driving incredibly sexy cars at ludicrous speeds. The aforementioned Aaron Paul plays Tobey, a struggling mechanic that was wrongfully imprisoned for a crime committed by Dino (Dominic Cooper). Upon his release from prison, Tobey joins up with Julia (Imogen Poots) to garner revenge against Dino by traveling across the country to … best him in a street race organized by the reclusive Monarch (Michael Keaton).
Despite a razor-thin plot and a willful lack of characterization, all of the actors turned in more than serviceable performances. The demands of their roles were fairly limited, as most every character was a one-dimensional caricature (be it a street racer or a revenge-seeking trope), but Paul, Cooper, Poots, and Keaton (channeling a great deal of his inner-Beetlejuice) all did well-enough to not detract from the jaw-dropping eye candy that formed the core of Need for Speed. And, somewhat surprisingly, Paul and Poots had a great deal of on-screen chemistry, in a sappy-yet-believable sort of way. The greatest critique of any single character (save for Paul’s character crying more often than Jesse Pinkman) would fall to Dominic Cooper, who simply is not menacing enough to be the foil of any protagonist. Much of this is due to the writing, to be sure, but the interactions between Paul and Cooper did leave a bit to be desired.
Of course, few people are going to see this for its screenwriting and narrative structure. Rather, the only thing that the moviegoing crowd cares about in this instance are the cars and the stunts. And, at the risk of falling prey to hyperbole, Need for Speed was a visual treat. The cars are sleek and dangerous in appearance, and the camera lingers over their structures as if they were appreciating a beautiful woman. The most striking of these vehicles are the three Koenigseggs (Agera S models), which are simply marvels of aesthetic construction. They are driven frenetically and with endless ferocity, pushed to the very edge of what one believes a car should be able to accomplish. The cars crash and burn; they tumble and soar; they are used as weapons and wonders. Once the actors (or, to be fair, the stunt personnel) get behind the wheel, Need for Speed becomes pure spectacle, dripping with style and adrenaline. The mere sight and sounds of the cars make up for the shortcomings in the script, and create a palpable tension that is often lacking in similar movies.
It is the stunt-work of this film that sets it apart from others of its ilk, as I have alluded to already. The knowledge that everything I was seeing on the screen was accomplished by real drivers in real cars shot on-location was at the forefront of my mind throughout the viewing, and it escalated my appreciation of the movie as a whole tenfold. The cars are sexy, yes, but the skill with which they were driven – and crashed – is mind-blowing. It did not seem like they erred on the side of caution with any aspect of the film, and for that the viewer is rewarded with the best racing and car-chase sequences since the heyday of Steve McQueen in the 1970s. Need for Speed represents the direction the Fast & Furious franchise drifted away from after Tokyo Drift, and it works as something of a spiritual sequel in that sense.
Ignoring the issues with the writing (including some poor attempts at forced humor that I glossed over), the greatest flaw of the film may well have been the score. The soundtrack was, as a whole, quite good. However, it was too often used to drown out the purr of the engines and the screech of the tires, which detracted from the spectacle at hand on more than one occasion.
In the end, Need for Speed is a film best-suited for theaters. Its charm is wholly in the audiovisual sensations that bombard the audience from a big screen and surround-sound, and it would undoubtedly lose much of its luster in a home theater setting. However, it seems a bit inane to worry about rewatchability when the film has only been in theaters for a scant four days – particularly when it is this entertaining. As long as one goes into Need for Speed knowing exactly what to expect, I cannot imagine being disappointed.