The Need for Speed games have been a video game staple since 1994, have sold over a hundred million of copies over the franchise’s lifetime, and are almost solely focused on street racing. There’s often the bare minimum of a story and characters, and only so much innovation to the gameplay, given that it’s just driving a car around. “The Fast and the Furious films are essentially what a Need for Speed movie would look like” is something I would have said before actually seeing the real game-to-film adaptation that is 2014’s Need for Speed.
As it turns out, the Fast and Furious is too good for Need for Speed. This film wishes it was in the caliber of the Vin Diesel series. Those movies are somehow have deeper characters, stronger themes, and better pacing. I’m surprised, too. I mean, none of them deserve to run for over two hours — Need for Speed clocks in at 130 minutes — but if you’re going to do it, I guess I’ll prefer Furious Six to this thing, even if Need for Speed is more about the cars than the Fast and Furious franchise currently is.
After a particularly violent street race involving Tobey (Aaron Paul, our lead), Dino (Dominic Cooper, our villain), and Benny (Scott Mescudi) which involves Dino bumping into Benny, causing his death, and then fleeing the scene, leaving Tobey around to be arrested, Tobey spends two years in prison. During this time, his mechanic shop is shut down. Upon being released, Tobey swears revenge upon Dino, and in order to do that will race in a secret underground race whose location he doesn’t even know. Makes sense.
This happens in the first 30 minutes of Need for Speed. There’s another race before it, although that one has no consequences. After swearing his revenge, he manages to convince a rich man to lend him a $2 million Mustang, but only if one of the company’s employees, Julia (Imogen Poots), tags along for the ride. They know the race is somewhere in California, and begins in a couple of days. They’re in New York. Thus begins a road trip. No, seriously. Need for Speed is primarily a road movie.
For the majority of the movie, we’re doing a cross-country road trip — albeit an expedited one, given the two-day time limit — from New York to California. Tobey has to drive fast and recklessly (not furiously), in order to get there on time, all while avoiding the police. He has a friend in a helicopter, another couple of friends on the ground, and a car that can reach 230 MPH. What could possibly go wrong?
The end goal is to get to this mysterious race, named the DeLeon, in which the winner gains possession of all the losers’ cars. It’s hosted by an odd and rich man named Monarch (Michael Keaton), who hosts an internet program about … something. It must be off-air for most of the time, because he seems singularly focused on this race. Tobey needs to attract his attention in order to receive an invite, so he does crazy things that no sane person would do in order for that to happen. This set-up requires this much explanation because it’s that silly and complicated.
You’re here for the racing scenes, not the plot. In order to make the between-races road trip more interesting, the time limit has been enforced and random challenges are sent Tobey’s way. It’s stupid, sure, but it keeps things moving and gives Tobey a reason to drive like a crazy person. Many of them are exciting but it’s just the same type of thing over and over again. Car races and chases can only carry so much of the film, and in Need for Speed they’re asked to hold up the whole project.
If you are here for the cars and the races, you’re likely to at least have a decent time. They’re all well-staged, there’s no noticeable use of CGI, and given the speeds, the potential for death is always present. If you’re a car fanatic you’ll likely enjoy this even more than the Fast and Furious films. If you want to care about anything that’s happening, though, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
Tobey’s entire character is about trying to get revenge on Dino for killing his friend. You never feel it. Aaron Paul is such a bland lead that you only rarely get a sense that he has any investment in the proceedings. His character is one-note, too. And we know that he has to get to the final race — which the movie has to make up a reason to have Dino enter, too — because we need the final showdown. This lowers the suspense of the cross-country road trip. Julia is here to be a love interest but the two leads have no chemistry and her character didn’t need to be in the film at all. It’s just another worthless female role. Give her something to do, filmmakers.
If what you want from Need for Speed is a fast-paced and reckless drive from New York to California with the occasional obstacle thrown in for fun, then the film delivers. The races are plenty exciting, if repetitive, and the stunts all feel real. It has uninteresting characters played blandly by the actors. The story is needlessly confusing. It’s impossible to care about the main character’s quest for revenge. Without that emotional attachment, it’s hard to recommend Need for Speed except to the most die-hard fans of fast cars.