The history of movies based on video games is a path paved in the tears of annoyed critics and outraged fans alike. In the 21 years that have passed since the first video title made the leap – "Super Mario Bros" in 1993 – there has not been a single adaptation that qualifies as good. Most are awful; a scant few could be praised as watchable.
So the idea of being disappointed by a game-to-movie translation seems nearly impossible. Yet that’s the feeling that struck me as the credits started to roll on "Need for Speed."
It certainly wasn’t that I had high expectations for the street racing movie; the flashy EA logo in the opening credits saw to that. What’s sad is that "Need for Speed" has several of the pieces you’d want to have in a solid, fun B-movie. It features two enjoyable lead performers, the real stars – the cars – are suitably slick and the race action is thrillingly old school in its approach. There’s a lot going the film’s way. All it had to do was not be insultingly dumb.
Instead, the movie hopes you’ll enjoy the racing and car chases, and ignore almost everything else. And considering the movie runs an unnecessarily mammoth 132 minutes, that’s a lot of everything else to have to put up with.
Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad" stars as Tobey Marshall, a supremely skilled underground street racer and owner of a struggling rural New York auto shop. He gets a break, though, when his sniveling hotshot rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) asks him to help finish building a legendary Shelby Mustang for a chunk of its estimated $2 million price tag.
Tobey and the rest of his crew pull it off, selling the speed machine with the help of a charming Brit high-end car dealer named Julia (Imogen Poots) for a sweet $2.7 million. Old rivalries die hard, however, so Dino and Tobey – along with Tobey’s loyal pipsqueak pal Pete (Harrison Gilbertson, looking like a James Dean/Robert Pattinson lovechild without the talent of even the latter) – race for the whole paycheck.
During the race, Dino winds up bumping Pete’s car in a moment of desperation, sending fluffy-haired Pete flying into the air and crashing to the ground in a deadly fiery wreck. Dino scampers off and hides the evidence (that was driving around in plain sight, but apparently went unseen because of course it did), leaving Tobey to mourn his pal – he yells "Nooo!" for about five minutes in slow motion instead of, you know, calling 911 – and shoulder the blame.
Two years later, Tobey emerges from prison, blood boiling and mind set on revenge. And he’s going to get it the only way he knows how: by beating Dino in a secret illegal street race called De Leon, run by an eccentric race enthusiast (Michael Keaton, clearly filming his scenes in one day) who hosts some sort of high-profile public access street racing talk show.
He needs a car, however, so he loans out the Shelby Mustang he built and sold for Dino. Julia comes along for the ride as a sort of chaperone for the car's actual owner, and the two – with buddies in tow – race across the country to get to the De Leon. And then race away from bounty hunters. And then race in, well, the race.
Following in his father Fred’s footsteps, Scott Waugh ("Act of Valor") started his Hollywood career in stunts before retiring and turning his eye to directing. If "Need for Speed" is any evidence, he hasn’t lost his touch in the move from behind the wheel to behind the camera.
Almost all of the automotive action on display is carefully planned, grounded stunt work, and as a result, the chase sequences crackle. When the sleek creations are flying down the road – or occasionally in the air – there’s a rush of genuine excitement and danger, watching real cars driven by real drivers on real roads pull off the seemingly insane.
The goal is clearly to let these stuntmen shine, and they do, reminding the audience what real, stakes-heavy action could look like before CG became the default setting. Meanwhile, Waugh puts the audience into the action, placing the camera behind the wheel and capturing the alluring, fuel-burning growl and prowl of these likely soon-to-be-destroyed speedsters. It’s enough to make even the most delicate Prius owner a little revved up.
So as a stunt reel, "Need for Speed" is great. It’s just too bad nothing else in the film received the same care and consideration. The leads are blankly written, brought only to faint life by Paul and especially Poots, while Tobey’s crew are all empty calories for a bloated story. They play like the supporting cast of "Fast and Furious," though without the cozy, comedic familial charm and after chugging a few too many bottles of paint thinner. Then there’s Pete, a tedious, chirpy cliche who might as well have showed up in his first scene wearing a funeral tux. Considering how annoying he is, I did not miss him.
What’s really troubling about our supposed heroes is what little responsibility they take for anything they do. Obviously, this isn't a movie that requires a deep moral quandary about street racing, but Tobey never stops to take any of his own responsibility in Pete's death, nor the probably hundreds of innocent people whose spines are snapped trying to swerve out of the way his 230 mph joy ride.
The only thing more recklessly idiotic than the main characters, however, is the plot, which has enough holes in it to rival Milwaukee’s roads. Every step of the road trip gets more and more nonsensical.
Why does a man loan his $2.7 million treasured car to Tobey, a guy he met in passing and just got out of prison for street racing? Why does Tobey's pal Benny (Kid Cudi) have unrestricted access to an entire fleet of aircrafts like he found a cheat code in "GTA"? How does Dino's wife (Dakota Johnson of the upcoming "50 Shades of Grey") find his file of massively incriminating evidence within five seconds of sitting at his computer? Was it labelled "Super Evil Murder Plot Stuff, I Mean, Puppy Photos"?
Some of these are small complaints, but after two hours, these moments of relentlessly dumb plotting and jumps in logic pile on top of "Need for Speed" until it's hard to merely sit back and enjoy it for the races – many of which are transparently filler in a movie that already takes 15 minutes to do something when five will do just fine.
It’s too bad, because there’s a lot here to enjoy. The car sequences are impressive, and Poots is absolutely delightful company, bringing some charming spark to an absolutely nothing role (between this and "That Awkward Moment," she deserves to be a star, Hollywood; get her a good rom com or a "Frances Ha"-like indie vehicle, stat).
Near the end, there’s even a moment where all of the genre pleasures seem to be falling in place. The hero arrives in perfect crowd-pleasing fashion, and the villain accordingly squirms. The race begins, and it resembles exactly the movie you want "Need for Speed" to be. But that's just the brief final act in a three-part exercise in bloat and stupidity.
The incredible thing is that, all things said, "Need for Speed" is likely one of the best video game movie adaptations. But that’s like being called the best player on the Washington Generals. And unfortunately, it’s a title "Need for Speed" chooses to live down to.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.