Film: Need For Speed

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Need For Speed | Director Scott Waugh | Score: 3.6

There are many reasons to dislike strongly this video-game-to-feature-film boondoggle — an insipid, entirely predictable plot in which every beat is telegraphed as if from a Telex; a group of characters so dangerously moronic and unlikable you actively root for the cops to capture them; a story incredibly devoid of even the most basic narrative logic — but perhaps the most significant one is the fear it puts into you about the future career of Aaron Paul. Paul, a highly gifted young actor who just completed a miraculous run as Jesse, the moral foil to maniacal high school science teacher turned meth cooker Mr. White, in “Breaking Bad,” now finds himself at a bit of a crossroads in his career, and, at least based on this effort, the early returns are alarming.

He might not be the first gifted actor who simply works better on TV than the big screen — with its large aspect and encompassing focus, film tends to demand more presence from its actors than most TV fare — and there’s no shame in recognizing who you are and what medium your acting persona best works (do you hear that, David Caruso?), but no matter what your agent says or how many zeroes you can fit at the end of your paycheck, if you use your status to make lifeless dreck such as this on the big screen, you’ll squander your chance to ever make a cinematic impact in this lifetime.

Paul has shown range and uncanny grace in his best work, but has a tendency to catch on to malformed projects suited to someone with a lot less emotional access than he appears to have. Between junk like this and positioning himself as some sort of Bratpack wanna be in Ciroc ads, gallivanting around Vegas on a private jet with his good friends Frank Vincent and Diddy, I fear he’s heading in entirely the wrong direction.

This film, which is almost exactly as much fun as going over to a friend’s house and sitting on the couch watching them play on the X-Box for two hours, is such a shameless infomercial, it inserts super-high-end cars as motorporn, and is clearly underwritten by Ford, whose special edition Mustang is paraded about like a trophy wife at a country club.

The story, such as it is, involves Tobey Marshall (Paul), a supremely talented street racer living in Mt. Kisco with his pack of fellow gearheads (including Rami Malek and Scott Mescudi), running his late father’s high-end garage, even as it threatens to foreclose. The financial pressures force him to turn to Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a local kid made Indy racer, who has always had bad blood with Tobey, ever since he made off with his girl, Anita (Dakota Johnson), the older sister of Tobey’s winsome sidekick Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), a kid so freewheeling and good-natured he’s as marked for death they might as well just call him Ponyboy. After an insanely idiotic street race goes tragic, Tobey is sent to prison, taking the rap for the weasily Dino, who denies ever being involved. When Tobey gets out, he determines the best way to get vengeance somehow involves him entering an insanely illegal, super high-end street race known as the Deleon, in order to, um, clear his name, win a huge amount of dough and somehow put the nefarious Dino in his place.

This apparently means driving the aforementioned Mustang supercar across the country to the race, accompanied by Julia (Imogen Poots), a pretty blonde Brit, who acts as the car buyer for her rich employer. Somehow, after attracting entirely undue attention in Detroit and causing untold death and wanton destruction along its highways, the team makes their way to the race, just in time for Tobey’s redemption to begin.

Mere words can’t do justice to the incredible stupidity attached to this entire project, but let’s note a few small, salient plot points just to set the mood:

-Despite the fact that his repair shop is on the edge of being foreclosed upon, and money is such an issue Tobey is forced into working with Dino in the first place, the rag-tag team has such a high-tech arsenal of surveillance equipment and super-computers to monitor themselves, it would make the NSA envious.

-Monarch (Michael Keaton), the man behind this insanely illegal high-end race is a complete mystery to authorities even though he live-video broadcasts his assembling of the racers and the actual event from the comfort of his home office, and seems to do little all day but put his face front and center of his endless broadcasts.

-For reasons never remotely justified, Tobey feels compelled to make enough ruckus in Detroit to attract the attention of all the police in the city in order to be admitted to the Deleon, but takes so many risks of himself, his passenger and every man, woman and child walking the streets of the city, he would have been shot on sight.

-A missing red car that suddenly appears near the end of the film is somehow enough evidence by itself to exonerate Tobey from further persecution, even though in process of acquiring it, the convicted felon on parole, jumps state lines, recklessly drives across the entire country, causes innumerable major accidents and potential life-threatening injuries to a parade of cops and innocent bystanders alike, and seems utterly unrepentant about the entire stupid progression of his life.

All of this, mind you, lead by a band of dimwitted idiots so moronic they make the combatants in The Cannonball Run seem like the Algonquin Round Table. If Paul wants us to buy into his film career going forward, he’s simply going to have to do better than this: Two hours in, you can actually feel your brain begin to wither. Tobey might ultimately win his redemption, but we’re the ones paying the price for it.

•••

Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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