The sudden death of Paul Walker late last year was a tragedy for a number of reasons. It also left a hole in the 2014 schedule for a muscular, action-driven car movie, since the seventh entry in the "Fast and Furious" franchise has been rescheduled for April 2015. Just because we don't have a "Fast and Furious" movie in the pipeline doesn't mean that we will be denied some gasoline-drenched mayhem, as "Need for Speed," based on the series of wildly popular Electronic Arts video games, races into theaters nationwide this week.
It's the story of a young man (played by "Breaking Bad" star Aaron Paul) who is framed for a horrible crime and decides to exact revenge by entering into a dangerous cross-country race. You know, like you would do if someone set you up. It's got a bunch of hunky dudes (like Kid Cudi) doing things that you should probably never do with a car, and some equally adorable ladies who are, for the most part, just along for the ride (including future "Fifty Shades of Grey" heartbreaker Dakota Johnson).
But, for those car movie junkies that have made "Fast and Furious" one of the biggest franchises ever, will "Need for Speed" rev their engines or leave them idling wildly? Read on to find out.
1. It's Basically The 'Citizen Kane' of Movies Based on Video Games
I know this sounds like the very definition of "damning with faint praise," but it's true. Countless movies have been concocted from the world of video and computer games, and only a small sliver of them are watchable, let alone good (the only one I can think of off the top of my head that I actually like is the third "Resident Evil" movie). The problem is that video games are an amazingly subjective experience, where you are in control of something or someone yourself. A movie is a much more removed experience. It's the difference between watching someone playing a video game and playing a video game yourself. With "Need for Speed," it feels visceral and, astonishingly, alive. The distance felt by earlier video-game movies has been erased; this time you're in the driver's seat. It's a high-octane, fuel-injected thrill ride that doesn't hit the brakes until the credits roll.
2. Aaron Paul Puts the Pedal to the Metal
When "Breaking Bad" ended, the question was whether or not Aaron Paul's film career would be a viable option. After all, a number of television stars have left the small screen only to see their careers crash and burn (David Caruso, I'm looking in your direction). Thankfully, that's not the case here. Paul is officially in the race to becoming a big-time movie star. One of the greatest things about Paul is how emotive he is; he easily taps the vulnerability and humility just beneath the surface and comes across as a genuinely good guy. That gift is utilized here, beautifully. When he needs to be, though, Paul can be tough and intense. He puts the pedal to the metal, baby.
3. Imogen Poots Steals the Movie
As good as Paul is (and he's really good), Imogen Poots, the British beauty from the sorely underrated "Fright Night" remake and this year's "That Awkward Moment," gets the "Need for Speed" MVP award. She is adorable and tenacious, and she gets to use her real accent, which is a huge relief. She plays the assistant to Paul's benefactor (don't worry about it), who accompanies him on the race. Poots is smart and sexy and funny and sexy and she gets to show all of these sides during the course of the movie. She also gets to drive Paul's souped-up muscle car in one of the movie's biggest and most exciting action sequences. It's weird to think that "Need for Speed" could have any discernible "feminist" underpinnings, but Poots's character is a strong woman who exists largely in a man's world and doesn't apologize or wilt. It's pretty awesome.
4. The Particulars of the Revenge Plot Are Fuzzy at Best
If there's a weak link in the high performance engine of "Need for Speed," it's that the particulars of Paul's revenge plot don't make a whole lot of sense. He wants to cripple the bad guy (Dominic Cooper), because he was responsible for Paul's best friend's death (and his subsequent imprisonment). So he enters into a cross country race where, whoever wins the race, the victor gets all of the other entrants' cars. But as the race wears on, all of the cars get destroyed so Paul is going to end up with... What? Scrap metal? And the details of how he is going to "clear his name" in the process is also totally obscure, especially since he breaks a number of local and national laws during the race.
5. The Race Sequences Are Intense...
The racing sequences are breathless and super, super intense. Those who are into cinematic car races will definitely be impressed (and, yes, there are big shout outs to some of the great car chases in cinema history). And you are right in there, in the driver's seat. What is so miraculous is that the racing sequences are all different and all very, very fun.
6. ... And 100% Real
Director Scott Waugh comes from the stunt world and so he was emphatic about all of the car chases being 100% real. And you can tell. This is honest-to-god, metal-on-metal carnage. It is a world of difference. Instead of watching pixels float around a computer screen, you are watching real cars with the heft and weight and gravity of real objects and actors reacting to those real objects. If the next "Fast and Furious" is dependent largely on computer effects, things will probably feel hollow. Let's hope that it doesn't.
7. The First 30 Minutes Are Stuck in Neutral
As much fun as "Need for Speed" is, it's not perfect. In particular, the first 30 minutes are a total bore. There is way too much time given to the small town melodrama that makes up the back story for Paul's character, and the dynamics of the underground street racing world are broad and familiar. It feels, for a while at least, that the movie is stuck in neutral. Thankfully, once the cross-country race starts, it turns into the gonzo, "Cannonball Run"-style ride and it doesn't let up. So just hang in there.
8. It's Interesting How They Incorporate the Game
People who have never played the game will probably be a little baffled as to how it has been adapted from the Electronic Arts franchise of the same name. The game is pretty simple: it's about racing, but the main objective is outrunning the cops. Unlike other games, where you simply race around a track or, if you're playing "Mario Kart," avoiding flying turtle shells, you are breaking the law in "Need for Speed." You really, really need that speed. So in the "Need for Speed" movie, they make some clever allusions to the series. This mostly comes through with one sequence where Paul actively pisses off cops in an effort to get them to follow him. Those with a more intimate knowledge of the series could probably tell you the other shout-outs to the games.
9. Michael Keaton Is a Hoot
So, the underground cross-country road race that makes up much of "Need for Speed" has an organizer and a kingpin in the form of a mysterious former racer called The Monarch. Michael Keaton who, after "RoboCop," is fast becoming one of the most welcome returns to cinema, plays this character. Keaton is one of the most talented actors working today, period. It's good to see that other people are finally seeing that, decades after he broke through with his work with Tim Burton on the "Batman" movies and "Beetlejuice." Every time Keaton shows up in a movie, whether it's Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" or the Will Ferrell comedy "The Other Guys," it's hard not to squeal with joy.
10. A Franchise Is in Order
When Aaron Paul rides off into the sunset, you kind of wish that the movie would keep going. And hopefully it will. With many, many sequels.
Photo courtesy DreamWorks Pictures