Despite the negative stigma around movies that are “too much like video games,” Hollywood has a really weird track record with their video game adaptations. Film versions of Mario Bros., Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat exist, while story-driven examples like Halo and BioShock never make it out of pre-production. We may never see Assassin’s Creed or The Last of Us in a movie theater, but Asteroids is practically a sure thing. Unsurprisingly, Need for Speed had little difficulty in making the transition.
What is surprising is how well it pulled it off. Despite all odds, Need for Speed is a great car chase film. You have to be willing to roll with its plot twists, which forgo realism in almost all regards for the sake of fun, but what you get in exchange is something surprisingly creative. Had the Need for Speed games ever framed their races around a plot like this, we’d probably be talking about how brilliant they are.
The star of the show is Aaron Paul, who brings some of his “yeah, bitch!” energy to the role of Tobey Marshall. Tobey runs an auto shop with his friends by day and enters into illegal street races by night. He is, of course, the best at what he does, which pulls him back into a long-time rivalry with Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). What starts innocently enough with a bid to rebuild one of the most infamous cars of all time quickly becomes a revenge story as Tobey is framed for murder.
The story is built upon some generic groundwork but the way it takes each turn is what impressed me most. Unlike Fast & Furious, which is only tangentially about cars at this point, Need for Speed is brimming with races and chases. In fact, it felt like 90% of the film’s 2+ hour runtime took place behind the wheel. That could have been overkill, but the plot justifies the car stuff and the car stuff moves the plot along in some really fun ways.
It helps that all of the stunts and car chases are clearly performed by real cars. The use of CG in car chases has always deflated the excitement for me, and Need for Speed never had this issue. You do have to like car chases to a certain extent, but they’re filmed and choreographed in an intense, visceral way that I think any action film fan will appreciate.
Despite running over the two hour mark, I was entertained from beginning to end, and that’s a serious accomplishment for a film like this. Sure, there was maybe one or two plot twists too many, but following Need for Speed’s own adolescent, unrealistic action film logic, the pieces actually fit together rather well. It’s an oddly well-constructed film.
If I had a complaint it’s that the film screamed boy’s club at times. The one woman who gets a lot of screentime (Imogen Poots), manages to hold her own and kick ass in her own quirky, feminine way, but still seems to fill an eye candy role too often. Just as the jokes and fast cars are targeted at young guys, she seems designed for guys to fall in love with. The camera hangs on her just a bit too long, and while the film wouldn’t be the same without her, I wish her role was handled just a touch more gracefully. That said, there’s a three-dimensional female character in a car chase movie, so maybe we’re making some progress here.
I came out of Need for Speed eager to drive something fast, or just go home and play a racing game, which is probably the exact praise the film’s investors and EA want to hear. But that’s also a clear marker of a great action flick — if I walk out amped up with some residual excitement (you should have seen me on the way out of Crank or the Bourne films), that’s a success story. Video game tie-in be damned, Need for Speed is a blast.