Review: Need For Speed

The Need For Speed franchise already dominates the racing genre in the gaming world (with twenty plus titles released since the mid-nineties), and has now set its sight on the big screen with help from director Scott Waugh (Act of Valour). The biggest issue faced by Waugh and screenwriter George Gatlins is creating a car-racing centred feature that establishes a unique world and characters of its own, and  does not simply come off as a Fast and Furious rehash.

Aaron Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, a blue-collar mechanic who is framed for a crime that he did not commit. After facing two years jail time Tobey sets out for revenge against the man who framed him, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). With the help of British car broker Julia (Imogen Poots), Tobey races cross-country to take on Dino in an illegal racing competition organised by eccentric motor fanatic, Monarch (Michael Keaton).

Need For Speed's most impressive feature is its racing sequences which are all peppered with a strong sense of originality and shot with an impressive lack of CGI. Waugh crafts a real sense of urgency (helped by giving the characters a deadline - they have forty-eight hours to get from New York to California to take part in the competition) resulting in a variety of tense, edge of your seat set-pieces. The first of these is a blistering muscle-car race between Tobey, Dino and Tobey's friend Little Pete which has tragic consequences and sets up the revenge tangent of the narrative. However, the standouts include a desert canyon race featuring a little help from an Apache helicopter and the conclusion's battle between Tobey and Dino.

Whilst the visual set-pieces always remain fast paced and exciting, the narrative follows an expected track where viewers will be able to detect the blatantly obvious direction that the story is heading. Of course with all racing based films, the plot usually just serves as an underdeveloped excuse to hold together the set pieces - and Need For Speed is really no exception to this rule - we know Little Pete's fate as soon as he's introduced, just as we know the outcome of the final race before it has even taken place. Fortunately, screenwriter Gatlins adds in occasional moments of originality which spice up the safe narrative - for example, we see  the manipulative Deano place a bounty of the heads of Tobey and Julia resulting in an increased sense of tension and the welcoming of some unexpected action sequences.

Some smart casting moves also add to the like likebaility factor of Need For Speed, none more so than Aaron Paul. Destined for great things as a leading man, Paul brings a quite confidence to the role of Tobey, playing the role with an underplayed charm and swagger - yet always commanding the screen. On paper, Imogen Poots' traditional quirky Brit girl character may feel a bit out of place in a high-octane racing film, but the actress has a real chemistry with Paul. The street-smart, intelligent and dryly amusing Julia is a character that Poots could play in her sleep, yet the actresses's performance is integral to the fun tone of the film. There is also an eccentric scene stealing turn from Michael Keaton (sporting a hideous soul-patch/goatee), which is sadly a little underused.

This is where the smart casting ends. Dominic Cooper - a tremendous actor in his own right, suffers here by being stuck in a two-dimensional role which would make any actor look wooden. Dino is a villain with no backstory or justification as to why he acts the way does, but perhaps more annoying is that the Brit star is forced to speak in a dodgy American accent (picture the reverse equivalent of Dick Van Dyke's Mary Poppins dialect).

Perhaps in an attempt to copy the successful dynamic of the Fast and Furious series, Need For Speed establishes a pit-crew team around Tobey (a bit like Dom Toretto's crew). These characters serve as little more than a desperate attempt to break from the often-serious tone of Need For Speed with the tonal balance in the scenes never feeling settled (unlike Poots' scenes). For example, after a tense race featuring Tobey and Julia we then see one of the pit crew stripping naked after he quits his office job - as we are told it will stop him from ever going back. These heavy handed attempts at comedy never really pay off, feeling more uncomfortably cheesy than entertaining - which is fine for Smokey and the Bandit Part III, but it does not work here.

There is no doubt that the narrative of Need For Speed will be instantly familiar to anyone that has seen a handful of action films, and there are plenty minor annoyances in the form of the likes of overbearing supporting characters. However, there is a multitude of genuinely impressive action scenes here which feel inventive and thrilling, captured with some real edge of your seat tension by Waugh. Impressive turns from Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots further add to the conviction of Need For Speed, which showcases a real potential to grow in a following entry.


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