“Need For Speed” is several different movies at once, and most of them are very stupid.
There is a rumor that George Gatins wrote the script for this film, but I find that hard to believe after sitting through the film. Sure, there are some people and there are some things that happen to them, but the only real reason the studio gave director Scott Waugh cameras was so he could film some admittedly amazing car stunt sequences.
Waugh earns his action credibility honestly. He comes from a family of stunt performers, and he's been doing stunts in film since the early '90s himself. When he says that he wanted to make an ode to the great stunt driving movies like “Bullitt” or “The Blues Brothers” or “Smokey and the Bandit,” I take him at his word. There are some very well-shot and well-staged car scenes in the film, and if all you want is to see car mayhem that was shot for real without CG, then go see “Need For Speed.” You'll feel like you got your money's worth.
But if you are looking for a coherent story or character motivations that make sense or something where the lead isn't an amoral piece of garbage with no real room to complain about anyone else's actions, then I don't think “Need For Speed” is for you. While the film takes a massive technical leap forward from Scott Waugh's “Act Of Valor,” which looked like an amateur porn film that featured Navy SEALs killing brown people instead of sex, it is just as narratively confused.
This is one of those movies where the good guy, Drives RealFast (Aaron Paul), is angry at the bad guy, Smug GasPedal (Dominic Cooper), for a reason that could easily be explained as backstory but that ends up dominating the first forty minutes of the film. And while I share RealFast's outrage at the way Smug's underhanded race tactics cause the death of Baby Johnny Depp (Harrison Gilbertson), I find it hard to care considering every major character in this film is involved in illegal street racing that appears to cause major death and destruction involving innocent people without ever once considering they might be terrible people.
Drives ends up going to jail while Smug gets away free for no reason that makes any sense in the real world, somehow not only hiding the sports car/murder weapon but also keeping a file in which he details his crimes right on the desktop of his computer. When Drives finally gets out, he begins to enact his masterful plan for revenge by breaking a whole ton of laws and entering a ridiculous race that is run by Michael Keaton, appearing here as himself, evidently, spending his “Batman” money on what appears to be a private alternative Internet where he can broadcast a real-time streaming feed of a race that covers hundreds of miles that are shot by cameras that he has installed to cover every inch of California.
The more I think about this film, the more I'm baffled by its existence. Characters drift in and out of the movie for no real reason. Dakota Johnson shows up looking about as preposterously cute as she's ever looked, but she is in the film only so she can betray Cooper's character at an inopportune moment, even though she apparently stayed married to him after he murdered her baby brother. Scott Mescudi, better known as Kid Cudi to people in the music world, plays a character who can apparently produce any air transportation he wants or needs out of thin air, and his entire job is to watch the races from the sky and make sure Drives RealFast can terrorize the innocent public with absolutely no fear of legal reprisal, and it is amazing to see how random and ridiculous his scenes are when he just shows up with a traffic copter or a military Apache just because it seems convenient.
I really liked one early race sequence, which is staged with no score at all, because there is some beautiful sound work done there, the entire thing built around the sound of the clutch and the engine, and every single stunt driver in the film deserves a round of applause. There are some great gags. But as a movie, it just barely holds together. Poor Imogen Poots is stranded here playing a terribly-realized character, the hot girl who knows everything about cars and who ends up riding shotgun with Drives for the entire race just so the movie's not a complete sausage convention. She tries her best to make her role interesting, but there's nothing on the page for her at all.
It is admirable that the producers managed to find an actor to play the bad guy opposite Aaron Paul who stands the same three-and-a-half feet tall so Paul wouldn't feel bad, but Dominic Cooper, like Paul, is stuck playing three basic facial expressions for the entire movie. These are good actors, but they can't just make characters appear out of thin air. Neither can the filmmakers, sadly, and by the time the film reaches its totally ludicrous and impossible conclusion, I was just irritated and ready to leave.
Even people who love to “turn their brains off” during a film will feel their intelligence being insulted by pretty much every minute of this one. I say this as someone whose first car was a Mustang I loved to drive way too fast. If I couldn't even just sit in the theater and enjoy listening to the sound of a high-end Mustang being put through its paces, then “Need For Speed” has to be considered a resounding failure. Just hiring a great cinematographer (Shane Hurlbut's work is really slick) isn't enough to make this a real movie. Go play a racing video game instead. At least there, you'll have a reason to stay engaged.
“Need For Speed” opens everywhere tomorrow.