‘Need for Speed’ movie review: Aaron Paul in a fast, loose video game adaptation

The Need for Speed series has been one of the most popular video game franchises to hit consoles and PCs over the past twenty years, churning out nearly a game per year over that period of time and selling over 140 million copies. 

In adapting the video game for the screen, the filmmakers of Need for Speed must have encountered a problem: this is a series of racing games, meaning that character, plot and other basic story elements are just about non-existent; if you’ve ever played one of these games, you’ll know it’s just about racing through city streets, and maybe upgrading your vehicles along the way. There really aren’t any characters or storylines to speak of. 

But while you kinda need plot and character in a big-budget blockbuster (to, y’know, hold the attention of your average mainstream audience member), Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed, takes the same mentality as the video games: screw everything else, this is all about the cars.

Sure, there are one-dimensional characters, ridiculous plotting, embarrassing dialogue, a wafer-thin story, and questionable ethics. But who cares about all of that? The filmmakers know why you’ve come to see a film titled Need for Speed

And you know what? On that level, it almost works. 

The good: Need for Speed features real cars recklessly driving down real streets and getting smashed up real good. While the Fast & Furious films have turned into live-action cartoons full of computer-generated effects, here’s one that employs actual racing techniques and practical stunt work and crashes, to great effect. We genuinely take notice, and that’s the real selling point here.

And the cars look and sound great – particularly that modified Ford Mustang, which the film endlessly drones on about. Heck, it has more backstory than any of these characters; the movie sets itself up in such a way that when the Mustang crashes, we actually care more about the car than the characters inside of it. Crazy, I know – and probably not intentional – but that’s what you get from a movie like this.

Bonus: director Waugh (Act of Valor) shoots and edits the action with care and attention, so that the audience can always follow what’s happening on screen. Gee, that was thoughtful of him, and unusual for a contemporary action movie. After trying to work out just what the hell I was watching in the Ethan Hawke racing thriller Getaway, I really appreciated being able to understand what was happening in this movie. 

Not that there’s any great filmmaking going on here – just good old fashioned workmanlike effectiveness that brought back memories of B-movie classics like Gone in 60 Seconds and Vanishing Point (heck, I was even briefly – briefly! – reminded of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop during the cross-country dash that takes up the bulk of the movie). Not that Need for Speed rates anywhere near those films. 

The bad: oh boy. Everything else. In an era of movies that have been dumbed-down for mass consumption, this is one of the dumbest. We’ve got a good ol’ boy hero (played by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, who isn’t without a certain charm, but tries and fails to channel Steve McQueen or Drive’s Ryan Gosling here) who is barely sketched, and a sneering, over-the-top villain (Dominic Cooper) who would be more at home twirling his mustache in a silent film. 

Then there’s the multi-racial crew of laughably one-dimensional stereotypes (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Harrison Gilbertson), and a hot girl (Imogen Poots) or two (Dakota Johnson). 

And the racing podcast DJ, who also organizes the illegal street races, and carefully explains everything to us that the screenplay has failed to. He’s played by Michael Keaton, who never appears on screen with anyone else and likely filmed his scenes in an afternoon or two. 

The plot of Need for Speed involves, incredulously, out-and-out murder via vehicular homicide perpetrated by the baddie, which our hero seeks vengeance for by beating him fair and square in an illegal and highly dangerous street race. He has to break parole, borrow a $3 million supercar, and get from New York to California in 48 hours with the help of his buddy in a Cessna and an Apache helicopter just to compete in the mystery race, which will prove… what? That the baddie is responsible for a two-year old murder… somehow? 

Did I say illegal and highly dangerous? Our hero recklessly races across the country through city streets, causing numerous accidents along the way as cars flip and spin out and burst into flames. He laughs as he nearly takes out a hobo crossing an alleyway. I wonder how many people would have died as a direct result of his actions during the movie. It’s as morally dubious as Man of Steel.

But Need for Speed is glorious trash: it’s the kind of bad movie that can eat up 130 minutes of your time (yeah, that’s right – two hours and ten minutes for this) and you’re still entertained by the utter insanity of it all. 

Note: In Prague, Need for Speed is screening in both 2D and (post-production-converted) 3D versions. Above review refers to the 2D version of the film.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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