Need For Speed, loosely based on the racing game of the same name, roars from zero to sixty in… about thirty minutes. The first half hour of this movie is a painful, endless slog of bullshit, but once the story gets out of the way and the cars begin racing cross-country it’s an absolute blast.
Aaron Paul is a small town mechanic whose shop is in trouble. His multi-ethnic group of pals help him build supercars and race them at night through the mostly-empty streets of his home town before heading to the drive-in movie theater, but there’s not really a lot of money in that. When home town asshole turned race car superstar asshole Dominic Cooper comes home to recruit Aaron Paul to build him a supercar the nervous-looking, constantly on the verge of tears man must put aside old resentments to make some money. But that’s just the prologue to the prologue! Once they’ve built the car Cooper and Paul get into a tiff and decide to see who is the best man in an illegal street race in supercars that look like they should be driven by astronauts, and in the ensuing competition Aaron Paul’s best little buddy gets killed, and Aaron Paul gets wrongly sent to jail for reckless endangerment or something.
THAT’S the prologue. There are two good race scenes in there, but all of this stuff between the races is tedious in the extreme. The movie gets into gear (car reference!) when Paul gets out of jail and has a massive revenge plan - he will drive across the country in 48 hours and enter a top secret supercar race hosted by Michael Keaton, humiliate Dominic Cooper and win his car and maybe prove it was Cooper who killed Little Buddy in the first place.
What makes the first half hour of Need For Speed so irksome is that nobody gives a shit about this stuff. This is a movie where, as the Critic’s Cliche Handbook says on page 183, the cars are the real stars. We want to see driving, not Aaron Paul weeping in police lock-up. We want to see crazy stunts, not Aaron Paul on his knees before a flaming wreck screaming NOOOOOOO.
If it sounds like I’m being a touch harsh on Aaron Paul it’s only because I found him to be wildly miscast as the tough, nerves of steel driver. Paul’s whole thing is a trembling vulnerability; there’s little of Steve McQueen in him. And that’s okay! But he’s playing a Steve McQueen character here, a guy who has motor oil in his veins and is precise as the steering on his supercar. Paul cries (more than once) and his voice hitches and he has a baby-faced softness to him. When he opts to save a hated enemy rather than let him die in a fire it feels obvious - Aaron Paul doesn’t have the coldness to let that guy die! Aaron Paul’s a nice boy who just happens to be in a tough situation. I wanted that moment to feel tense, like I wasn’t sure if the hero of this amoral car racing movie would just let another human slowly burn to death, and like his decision to do the decent thing was a big deal.
The cliche, as I said, is that the cars are the stars, but the reality is that Imogene Poots is the star. She’s amazing in this film; given almost a complete character (sometimes she has nerves of steel, sometimes she’s weirdly helpless), she nonetheless owns every moment she’s on screen. She’s beautiful, obviously, but more than that she’s filled with life and energy. Star power explodes from her in every scene, and I would have happily watched a version of this film where she was the driver.
Dominic Cooper makes an excellent villain; he leans right into mustache-twirling territory, which is perfect for the broadness of this film. Also delightfully broad is Michael Keaton, who appears to have shot his scenes in an afternoon; he plays a reclusive rich guy who has the personality of a morning DJ and who does all of his scenes in front of a webcam. He’s big and having fun, and it’s too bad he’s not really in that tedious first half hour, because he would have smoothed that patch of bumpy road (again, I’m doing car analogies).
But you’re not going to Need For Speed for the actors. They’re the icing, the extra bit that pads the moments in between insane car stunts, and the film is filled with them. The cross country bits are a blast, and the final race is extraordinary. Every scene behind the wheel is a great scene, and director Scott Waugh’s stunt background shines through as he photographs each moment lovingly and clearly. The real hero of the film may be Shane Hurlbut, whose photography captures the cross-country feel of the film; Need For Speed has the scope of a 70s road picture, and Hurlbut makes the scenery competitive with the cars - all of which are gorgeous and shot like fashion models.
The reckless driving of Need For Speed is a blast; I wasn’t expecting a Cannonball Run aspect to this movie, but the scenes where Aaron Paul and Imogene Poots are blasting down the highway and putting many innocents in danger may be among my favorite parts of the film. Dominic Cooper is the bad guy, but Need For Speed has a very 70s distaste for cops and highway patrol, and our heroes humiliate and possibly murder them whenever possible. The whole film, while looking very modern and digital (in terms of photography - the action is gloriously practical and you can tell), has a distinct throwback vibe. Some of that may rankle - there’s a boy’s club attitude towards women here - but it came across to me as charming in a high testosterone way. Waugh comes from a family of stunt men, and Need For Speed occasionally gives you a whiff of what it must be like to sit around with those guys while they tell bawdy jokes and downplay the dangers of the job for the sake of bravado.
Need For Speed doesn’t have the joy of the Fast and Furious films, but it has action chops that sometimes exceed those movies. I go to a F&F movie for the characters as much as for the action, and Need For Speed can’t match that. But when it comes to the action, Need For Speed is a must-see for acolytes of the dying art of practical stunts. Yes, the first half hour is godawful, but the next ninety minutes more than make up for it.