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Friday, March 14, 2014

Need for Speed 2014 * * 1/2 Stars

Need for SpeedDirector: Scott Waugh
Year: 2014
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots

Based on one of the most popular video game franchises of all time and disregarding things like the safety and decency of human life, Need for Speed hit theaters last Friday with what I believe to be mixed results. Since this is Aaron Paul's transition from his TV stint in Breaking Bad to his first starring role here, we'll just call this flick "Braking Not So Bad" (ha ha). Anyway, everyone meaning the actors, the director, the assistant director, the script supervisor, and the stunt men probably had a lot of fun making this sort of combination of 1981's The Cannonball Run, 2000's Gone in Sixty Seconds and 1968's Bullitt (as a homage, there's a showing of Bullitt in a drive-in theater where Need for Speed first takes place). The audience, well they might be rolling their eyes at the inane script only to be glowing in the presence of some of the greatest car chase scenes ever filmed (by a stunt man turned director no less). As an illogical crash and bash/speed trip extravaganza, a dumbed down fantasy, and something that will really enthrall a gear head or a pack of video game-hungry teenage boys, Need for Speed is ultimately an okay film that could have been a lot better. As I just mentioned, there are some amazing, realistic, heart pumping drag races and some cool souped-up automobiles. But miscast actors and a flimsy, clunky script kept me at arm's length from recommending it.

Directed by Scott Waugh who filmed some harrowing, in-motion war scenes with Act of Valor and featuring stellar car stunts without the beleaguered enhancement of CGI, Need for Speed examines the character of Mount Kisco, NY's, Toby Marshall (Aaron Paul). He's a down on his luck mechanic who races on the side. When he gets a shot at building a car with his other buddy mechanics to pocket $500,000 dollars, Marshall thrives at the chance. He can get out of debt and keep his shop running. After he then rebuilds a sweet Mustang brought to him by a rich IndyCar racer named Dino Brewster (portrayed by Dominic Cooper who plays the villain, wears all black, and does a lot of sneering), they both along with Marshall's friend Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), decide to race for money and a whole lotta bragging rights. In said race, Little Pete dies, Marshall gets pinned for the crash (even though he wasn't involved) and winds up serving two years in prison for manslaughter. When he gets out of prison, he's bent on revenge. He can clear his name by going to California and winning a race sponsored by a recluse millionaire named Monarch (played by Michael Keaton). Dino, who's Marshall's main rival in said race (called the De Leon), sends his henchmen to try to stop him so he can't make the 45 hour cross country trip.

Of note: When Paul's character goes to prison, it's sort of a joke. Within barely a scene, he's already out and he meets up with his friends who are all set to get behind him. The whole sequence of him being incarcerated is so muted and nonchalant, it doesn't even feel like he was even there. Then, there's the fact that his auto shop cohorts all follow him to California. A couple of them travel by car and it's like they're almost one step ahead of him. He's supposedly the fastest driver but you wouldn't know it. Finally, there's the long arm of the law which seems so incoherent to every speed junkie involved. They bite the dust on more than one occasion trying to chase down Toby (and the other dangerous drivers). They're paper thin just like Toby's parole officer who I guess, never even existed.

Flaws aside, I knew what I was getting into when I decided to take in a screening of Need for Speed. I mean, I didn't expect to see stellar acting in a movie of this genre but throughout the proceedings, it literally bordered on atrocious (with the exception of veteran Michael Keaton). Added to that, the screenplay which causes the actors (especially Paul) to almost pause between every line, is lazy and juvenile. I don't know who to blame, the people doing the line readings or the writers (there are two of them and they're brothers, how neat). In all honesty, I'd have to flip a coin in order to decide. Imogen Poots has charisma as the token love interest, but her character seems a little underdeveloped. And Paul's character's supporting cast delivers dialogue that's the movie equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I read somewhere where a critic said that their only contribution to Need for Speed, is to follow Paul's Toby around like lap dogs and provide some comic relief. I'd say that's pretty accurate. The only problem is that none of the things they say come off as funny.

Now in the lead, Aaron Paul from what I've read, is supposedly a pretty good actor (I'm one of the few people who has never seen one episode of Breaking Bad). However, in what is supposed to be his first starring role (and I guess his first breakout role), he plays Toby Marshall with a lack of confidence. It's as if he's not sure that he's ready to headline his own movie. He channels his inner Ryan Gosling, his inner Ryan O'Neal (from 1978's The Driver) and the late Steve McQueen. And despite the fact that he has good screen presence and a solid actor's voice, Paul still manages to be a more robotic version of the trio of movie stars just mentioned. Then there's Michael Keaton. His screen time is interesting and without hardly interacting with anybody, he still manages to give "Speed's" strongest performance. He doesn't have any scenes with any of the other actors despite the fact that his Monarch is the film's voice. I love Keaton but I'm thinking that behind the scenes, he might have came in for one day of shooting, probably didn't even meet the cast or talk to anyone, filmed his role in one room, and probably got a huge paycheck (lucky son of a gun). He hams it up and he's not too shabby. With this screen turn and his portrayal of a rickety CEO in RoboCop, it kinda feels like he's really back this time. Just a thought.

Overall, this bad boy clocks in at 2 hours plus. It's overloaded with a plethora of battered car chase scenes and races. Some of them cater to the plot while others feel more like a greatest hits collection than a thread to an actual movie (the sequence where there is an exchange of gasoline between cars traveling at mach speeds is pretty interesting). If I had to categorize this March release, I'd say that it's one part silly, one part preposterous, and two parts adrenalized. In truth, Need for Speed is a mixed bag but it's not the clunker (no pun intended) that most critics make it out to be. If anything, embrace what's in motion and try to ignore the cringe-inducing dialogue. Bottom line: Need for Speed is not such a bad way to kill two hours. But it's a vehicle (get it) that truly "needs" some reshoots.

Written by Jesse Burleson

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