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Movie Review: 'Need for Speed'

Wed, 12 Mar 2014

Even in death, Carroll Shelby still touches us from the heavens above, where we mortals pay tribute in celluloid. The first half of "Need for Speed" (which opens March 14) concerns a Ford Mustang that was "the one Carroll Shelby was building when he died," the characters gush and stumble, barely expressing their praise quickly or coherently enough. "The chariot of the gods," someone says; it's worth "two million, minimum," says someone else. Ford has its Mustang hooves all over this movie, and the main Mustang makes the Shelby GT500 look like a Festiva: 900 hp, 228 mph, capable of landing sweet jumps and running full-speed across mining trails and being towed by a Sikorsky CH-53E over a canyon and deposited gently at the Bonneville Salt Flats as its occupants hang face-down until their blood vessels resemble overripe tomatoes. Screaming the entire way, we'd wager. It can be refueled in midair, hardly take a scratch, and even makes beeping sounds from a built-in iPad. And then, something happens halfway through the movie that makes you completely forget about it.

Aaron Paul, who's three days of stubble away from flipping a car in Kenmore Square during a Red Sox celebration, growls like Christian Bale's Batman as he tears across the country in 45 hours -- a leisurely pace, judging by real-life transcontinental records -- in order to avenge his brother, killed in a street-racing accident by baddish guy and race car driver Dino, played by Dominic Cooper. (The movie essentially mumbles something about IndyCar, but it's probably an excuse to film in some team's gigantic garage.) Revenge is to be taken during an illegal, near-mythical supercar street race.

Got it? Paul is "hell-bent to right a wrong" as he ties up with Julia, played by British actress and Most Adorable Name Contest winner Imogen Poots. Poots plays the action-movie-female-lead with stereotypical toughness but also a genuine vulnerability. You start caring for her faster than you care about Paul, despite multiple a close-ups of his eyes--we counted 5,000 such shots. Michael Keaton plays mysterious street-racing overlord Monarch, keeping it together with an obnoxiously grating impression of Vanishing Point's Super Soul. Kid Cudi (WHAT!?--ED.) is Benny, airplane and helicopter pilot extraordinaire who bounds from aircraft to aircraft like it's "Grand Theft Auto," always with cheery, childlike gusto. Rami Malek and Ramon Rodriguez are Paul's friends who serve as the film's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but with more male nudity (!). Cooper's spiky-haired bad guy is about as menacing as someone who cuts you off in traffic.

All the "Need for Speed" videogame elements are here: supercars, insane jumps, low-flying helicopters, speed traps, racing across bridge medians, gratuitous billboards (thanks, Continental Tire), aggressively dumb opponents with goofy nicknames ("Gooch," "Dino," "English Bulldog"), disposable cop cars destroyed in spectacular ways, and -- from later "Need for Speed" releases -- a silly revenge story and a femme fatale who drives with aplomb, a car enthusiast's Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The latter is evidence that "Need for Speed" is a videogame franchise constantly soaking up influences from Initial D to "Grand Theft Auto" to the Gumball Rally to Michael Bay movies.

This movie has its influences, too. Director Scott Waugh -- a former stuntman -- wanted to call back to the glory days of films like"Vanishing Point," "Bullitt," and "Smokey and the Bandit." Perhaps that explains why, according to Waugh, absolutely no computer-generated images were used in the making of "Need for Speed," a movie based on a video game that is of course, entirely computer-generated images. It's hard to believe. Over the course of the film, a Koenigsegg Agera R flips over a bridge, a Saleen S7 flips a police Tahoe, a Hummer H2 pancakes onto its roof, a custom Ford F-450 nicknamed "The Beast" fuels a car at 70 mph, and the aforementioned silver Ford Mustang jumps 170 feet over Jefferson Avenue in Detroit (Some Autoweek staffers actually watched from a rooftop as this stunt performed) and later, flies off a Moab cliff only to be yanked upwards from certain doom by a helicopter, ropes stretching across its door frames.

Credit where credit's due: the downtown Detroit car chase resists the temptation wallow in the tiresome ruin-porn aesthetic; Detroit looks clean and attractive and filled with young people who understand that a 900-hp Mustang on a car chase is just another day in the Motor City. Even the weather's nice. And, in the first race across Paul's upstate New York hometown, Waugh sits back and lets the engine sounds wash over the audience: no dramatic voiceover, no trendy Arcade Fire soundtrack, no jerky camerawork, no ADD-reinforcing quick cuts -- just a bunch of cars drifting underneath bridges and blowing past trains, instantly familiar to diehards who sat through the intro to "Need for Speed 4: High Stakes."

"Need for Speed": the film does feel like "Need for Speed": the games -- equal parts cheesy and fast-paced, exciting and cartoonish, stitched together by a plot that ultimately doesn't (and shouldn't) matter. By the time the movie ended, I had an inexplicable desire to fire up an old Windows 98 machine and play some "Need for Speed II." That's got to make it a success.

By Blake Z. Rong