THIRSTY FOR REVENGE: Aaron Paul squeezes every last bit of speed from the hot rod in the movie Need For Speed.


DIRECTOR: Scott Waugh

CAST: Aaron Paul, Domenic Cooper, Imogen Poots, and |Harrison Gilbertson


RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes




What you want from a movie called Need for Speed is right there in the title. You want a flick that swiftly moves you from car chase to car chase – each more impressive in its accelerated virtuosity than the last. You want a simple story on which you can hang a bit of character development.

You want a hero who can gamely stare death in the eye as he pilots 1 500kg of screaming metal faster than anyone else. You want to feel the wind in your hair and leave the theatre with your ears ringing from the deafening roar of Detroit muscle.

You will get some of that in Need for Speed, DreamWorks and Disney’s adaptation of the Electronics Arts series of games.

When Aaron Paul’s Tobey Marshall is behind the wheel – and a crew of stuntmen are wreaking some refreshingly non-CG automotive havoc – director Scott Waugh’s movie is a blast. Some interest in what Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman does next, along with men drawn to horsepower, could give this decent enough box-office takings, but it’s not the franchise starter I’m sure everyone involved hoped it would be.

The story follows Marshall, mechanic-savant by day, underground racer-savant by night. He runs the top-flight Marshall Motors garage, which specialises in squeezing every last bit of speed from the hot rods that are a common sight in the sleepy upstate town of Mount Kisco, New York.

He inherited the garage from his dad, who was apparently not fond of paying bills – and Tobey finds himself deep in debt. Luckily, a fella named Dino (Cooper) – who left town to become a professional racing car driver and entrepreneur (and stole Tobey’s girl on the way out) – shows up with an offer.

Dino is in possession of an unfinished Ford Mustang that was being designed by legendary car customiser Carroll Shelby. Dino wants Tobey and his crew of grease monkeys to finish the car – worth at least a cool million at auction – and will cut the Marshall Motors crew in for a quarter of the sale price. Of course, because Dino spends the movie twirling his imaginary moustache, you know he’s going to screw over Tobey. This comes at a post-sale race, at which Dino runs Tobey’s best friend, Little Pete (Gilbertson) off the road – and later frames Tobey. Two years of prison later, Tobey is back and thirsty for revenge.

Good thing the plot comes to his rescue: there is an underground race called the DeLeon, organised by a mysterious internet racing evangelist called Monarch (Michael Keaton).

Only a select few drivers are invited to race their million-dollar sports cars and the winner gets the pink slips to the losers’ rides. Dino’s business is failing, so he enters to keep the ship afloat.

Tobey wants to watch Dino explode in an expensive ball of fire. All Tobey needs to do is get from New York to the starting line in San Francisco in a little more than a day. For that he needs his old Marshall Motors crew: Finn (Rami Malek), the expert tuner; Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), who drives the support truck; and Benny (Scott Mescudi, better known as hip hop artist Kid Cudi), who flies a Cessna that never runs out of fuel and can spot the police from the sky.

Together – and with the firecracker of a British woman, Julia (Poots), who secures for Tobey that same Mustang dream machine he restored – they Cannonball Run it across the country, dodging the occasional cop and street punk chasing the bounty Dino has put on Tobey’s head. (Why there is more than one attack on the Mustang in almost 5 000km is something else entirely.)

When the opportunity arises for motorised mayhem, the Need For Speed delivers it. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut’s camera is always in the perfect place for maximum impact and with the cadre of stunt drivers assembled by Waugh, the assorted sports cars whip around with expertly choreographed abandon.

But you realise, about halfway through the story concocted by George and John Gatins, that there’s not a lot under the bonnet.

The film doesn’t have the same mythic heft as The Road Warrior, no matter how often Keaton’s Monarch barks from behind his podcast mic that “racing is an art… but racing with passion is high art and I think that’s Tobey Marshall driving the chariot of the gods”.

It doesn’t sell Tobey as a preternaturally gifted driver nearly as well as Speed Racer conveyed the brilliance of its titular throttle jockey.

And, ultimately, it’s not as much sexy-pulpy fun as the Fast and the Furious franchise, which leaves Need For Speed in the neon-bikini dust. Paul is a truly fine actor who is not given much to do here or any guidance on how to do it. Consequently, he spends the entire movie glowering, summoning his best Charles Bronson hero voice.

And Keaton is off in his own movie: he’s never on screen with anyone; it’s just him, a bank of monitors, a mic and an apparently ravenous hunger for all of the scenery in sight.

Every now and again you get a glimpse of the live wire who lit up the 1980s, but more often you just wonder who thought that much rambling was a good idea.

Car movies are about adolescent indulgence, existing in a world without rules where the hero – and the film around him – can do anything and everything he wants to because he is just that good.

He wants the girl? He gets the girl.

He wants to ignore every speed limit? Done, no matter how much consequence-free destruction is left in his wake. But Need For Speed is a flat, sexless movie that seems not to understand why people like to sit in the driver’s seat and rev that big engine: because of the transgressive rumble in your nethers. – Hollywood Reporter


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