Fizzy "Need For Speed" Has Thrills To Spare

A film’s worth can be found on a molecular level – its taste and texture speaking directly to our senses, beholden to some higher artistic purpose – or simply in its ability to entertain. The best films do both, but those purely in the “entertainment” category are often dismissed by serious cinephiles. Likewise, indie films rarely rule the roost at the box office. Regrettably, Hollywood has only widened the gap between serious fare and popcorn fare, divvying up the calendar year by target audience (as a general rule, blockbuster hopefuls inhabit March through August, while prestige pics occupy September through February).

On the surface, “Need For Speed” – based on the long-running video game series by the same name – meets all criteria for the stereotypical “check your brain at the door” car movie. Its limited pre-release buzz pegged it as a standard actioner, a kind of “Fast And Furious”-lite for the teenaged set. And it is that. It’s packed with vehicular mayhem, bursting with groanworthy dialogue for those so inclined, and predictable in the extreme. And yet, it’s so much more.

In an age when the success of Chris Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films has been viewed as a mandate that all action pics be thematically and visually dark, “Need For Speed” is a beacon of silliness bursting through the genre’s gloomy landscape. Only Marvel Studios has made any real attempt to upend the pervasive moodiness of the modern day actioner, meaning that “Need For Speed” succeeds on nerve alone. It wears its goofy, anarchic heart on its sleeve, doing its small part to shake up the monotony of release date patterns and genre expectations. Even more refreshingly, it eschews the faux-machismo and gearhead proselytizing of the “Fast And Furious” series.

Thanks to its utter disregard for following trends, the flick is a welcome throwback to the kind of mid-to-late 90s action filmmaking that was heralded as absurd at the time, but now evokes pangs of nostalgia for its simpler, less CGI-heavy methods. Aaron Paul (from TV’s “Breaking Bad”) stars as Tobey Marshall, a former street racer who now owns a garage in upstate New York. Needing money to keep his shop open, he reluctantly teams up with a former rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), to rebuild a Shelby Mustang.

Upon completion of the job, Tobey joins Dino for an ostensibly friendly street race that turns tragic. After unjustly doing time in prison for a manslaughter rap, Tobey sets his sights on revenge, aiming to beat Dino in an underground street race known as the De Leon. But first, he’ll have to get the Mustang there by completing a variation on the Cannonball Run – a cross-country trip from New York to California – in less than 48 hours.

Tobey’s crew consists of Benny (Scott Mescudi, also known as rapper Kid Cudi), Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), and Finn (Rami Malek), all of whom get moments of broad comic relief. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but they’re all likable enough – and the characters spearhead some of the pic’s more inspired stuntwork. A sequence in which Benny, via traffic helicopter, guides Tobey through traffic in downtown Detroit is a highlight.

Paul’s performance consists of an amiable mix of grit and charm, and he delivers the screenplay’s occasionally stilted dialogue with admirable aplomb. But it’s his co-star, Imogen Poots, who earns a curtain call. As Julia, car dealer and caretaker of the Shelby Mustang, Poots effortlessly lights up the screen, layering her character with equal parts strength and vulnerability. She fashions Julia into far more than the token damsel in distress she might have been, finding a terrific rapport with Paul while wielding her native English accent like a blunt object. As the two travel cross-country, it’s impossible not to root for them – both as people and potential romantic partners.

Michael Keaton has a minor role as Monarch, a reclusive media figure and founder of the De Leon, and it’s likely to be the most divisive part of the film. Moviegoers who resolve to go along for the ride will find humor in his absurdly over-the-top line-readings. As such, the character is a solid litmus test for the film as a whole. It’s a devil-may-care performance that will play like nails on a chalkboard to some, but it’s wholly representative of the pic’s manic bent.

“Need For Speed” has no interest in trying to win over those who’ll never embrace it. Instead, it goes all in for those who line up for the bright, shiny kind of pop filmmaking that’s no longer en vogue in Hollywood. It never shies away from formula, but it’s done so infectiously that most won’t notice. This is 90s-era Michael Bay, before Bay became a slave to CGI, toy lines, and pre-packaged stars. The amount of fun a cast and crew have while making a movie rarely translates to the final product, but that’s not the case here. This is junk food cinema done right, and it’s nice to have it back. At least for a few hours.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: March 14, 2014
Studio: DreamWorks Pictures
Director: Scott Waugh
Screenwriter: George Gatins
Starring: Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Scott Mescudi, Michael Keaton, Dakota Johnson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language)