Need for Speed
Directed by Scott Waugh
Released in 2014
Now, here is a video game movie. Typically, Hollywood buys the rights to a game like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for typical, Hollywood reasons: an exotic, albeit totally depoliticized, setting; a nifty time travel conceit; a male lead who can look good while swinging a sword. Need for Speed, a 20-year-old series of racing games, has no core locale, no human characters and no story. Back in fourth grade, I played Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 on GameCube because it had a McLaren F1 LM that went so fast I could lap the cops chasing me. That simple pleasure motivates this adaptation, a film so poorly written and devoid of any self-awareness that its fundamental, thematic emptiness makes it a fascinating text, as well as a superficially, stupidly enjoyable one.
As if to prove its commitment to The Real and the spirit of Americana, Need for Speed spends its first 30 minutes in Westchester County. Because when we think muscle cars and blue collar roots, we think Westchester and, to be specific, Mount Kisco. I have visited that town before and found it surprising how the production transformed a town of 10,000 into an urban center 20 times as large. Turns out it filmed those scenes in Columbus, Georgia. Why didn’t the movie just start there?
I am at a loss, and so is Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, née Aaron Paul — here a mechanic named Tobey Marshall, who has spent his whole life in the town and never once boasts about a local restaurant or expresses any sense that he lives in an actual place that he either longs to break free from or hopes to never leave. The most he can summon is “Are you still allergic to Mount Kisco?” to an ex (Dakota Johnson) at a yellow-tinted, Drive-esque drive-in theater. Even the thespian who could break down at the sight of a vial of ricin has little clue what to do with a line like that.
Tobey gets his diverse — sans Asian dude, unlike The Fast and the Furious movies — band of bros pumped for the initial conflict when he mutters, “I’m, uh … behind … on the loan.” When Benny (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi) interjects about “last time,” Tobey, via the pen of screenwriter extraordinaire George Gatins, says, “This time is different,” and, “If you guys don’t show up tomorrow, we lose this place.” That place is an auto shop/man cave they run now that Tobey’s dad has passed, just before the movie starts so that his cause of death can remain perpetually and pointlessly cryptic. It takes another death — this time of Tobey’s closest friend, after schoolyard bully-cum-racing millionaire Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) bashes his fast car with his own fast car and instigates a fiery, though undeniably pretty slow-mo inferno — and the framing of Tobey, with Dino going scot-free, to set up the barest outline of a conflict: For Tobey to win the De Leon, a secret race of modified supercars, in order to, somehow, prove his innocence and reassert his masculinity in the process.
This may not be obvious so far, but every character in Need for Speed is a terrible human being. Dino Brewster kills people, sure, with his pride and fake name and all. But the supposed good guys are sexist, unfunny idiots, too: Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) flirts with Tobey’s British love interest, Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), with winning lines like, “I really like Piers Morgan.” The only discernible arc in Tobey’s character is in his eventual acceptance of Julia as an actual person, only after she drives well and helps him evade police custody. Meanwhile, violence against pedestrians or civilian cars is ignored or even glorified: When Pete hits a homeless man’s shopping cart during an earlier street race, he smiles and laughs as the man screams, “My house!” During every race, Tobey manages to cause at least a half-dozen car pileup by driving on the opposite side of the road and cutting off SUVs and even school buses.
Naturally, the film never indicts its characters’ behavior. Whereas Transformers 2 can be easily lambasted for its offensive stereotyping, director Scott Waugh maintains a weird, remarkably open visual style that is either lazy assembly line craftsmanship or sly, subversive commentary. The host behind the De Leon game is none other than a nutty Michael Keaton, going by “The Monarch.” He spews pop philosophy into his microphone and webcam, like “Racing is art. Racing with passion — that’s high art.” Everyone in this film knows him and thus reveres him, and you wonder if his marked isolation, in a circular room with a long-suffering swivel chair, clues us into his questionable sanity. Is he any different from The Joker and his home videos in The Dark Knight? Through the grammar of film, he is not, or not by much.
Then there is Benny, who commandeers a news helicopter and eventually a U.S. Army helicopter for reconnaissance during Tobey’s cross-country trek. He could bring down the whole American military with his smile and gift of gab, which Waugh shows us whenever he can, whether on-screen or through isolated intercom. That all these dudes get away with their reckless, irresponsible behavior and never even reflect on their violence could be just brainless filmmaking, or perhaps a super-ironic treatment of machismo and other harmful byproducts from exclusively homosocial relationships. I mean, given that one of the last shots is Tobey looking up at white lighthouse, framed askew so it juts about 45 degrees across the screen, is it wrong to think a queer reading of this entire thing is in order? This is one of those films that is all surface, and inadvertently or not, the motivation behind such surface-level violence lies underneath it all, if you are willing to look. It’s fun, dumb and sexless enough that it already feels like a camp classic.
2.5 Stars out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.