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“Need for Speed”
Directed by Scott Waugh
Starring Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Ramon Rodriquez, Michael Keaton
Action, Crime, Drama
121 Mins
PG-13

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Need For Speed
is the kind of movie that the descriptor “high octane” was conceived for. It’s dumb but technically competent enough to pander to the NASCAR hillbilly types and Formula One engine snobs at once. But with neck-breaking car stunts and tightrope tension, it’ll keep your posterior numb and your adrenaline glands humming. Promising that if you get up for a bathroom break, you’re sure to miss something, Need for Speed rockets forth at breakneck speeds, blasting past the roadblocks of story beats and into head-on collisions with nonsense. In the very least, Scott Waugh has seemed to eek past the first set of crash dummy drafts as the undeniably cinematic experience he presents seems more finely tuned than one might first expect. It’s no Chauser but, at the very least, it won’t require you to strap in for a crash course on idiocracy.  

Setting the events to a ticking clock is a bit of a stroke of genius on screenwriter George Gatin‘s behalf as this provides the perfect framework for a movie about fast cars driving fast that has little to offer outside of the temptation of increasingly sleeker, and more European, cars set against an Imogen Poots stripping down layers by the ten minute marker. It’s seduction 101 and it works wonders.

As a movie based on a video game, Speed hits all the marks of mainstream adaptation one would expect, complete with shameless product placement and leggy blondes to ogle at. But beneath the veneer of corporate construction, this is a movie that reaches slightly above the plastic wrappings of strict VG adaptations. There’s obvious fun taking place beyond the lens and, thankfully, it’s the kind of fun we can actually revel in.

Michael Keaton, for one, is having the time of his life and his hammy performance as the illusive Monarch is representative of Need for Speed at large. As he goofs into the mic, accessorized with gaudy, almost Elvis-esque, shades and a flashy wardrobe, he’s the ridiculous meta commentary this kind of movie needs. He’s the outlet for the film’s sarcastic self-mockery and only with his kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude is Need for Speed able to get away with all its gravity-defying shenanigans.

Piping hot off the untouchable success of Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul is given a chance to reinvent his image in this more mainstream, but still mostly antihero, personality. Moving away from his persona of forlorn but corruptible Jesse Pinkman and into a guy that we can feasibly buy as a studio action figure, Paul, like Jesse in his fleeting moments, has started down a long and windy road. Even though he’s been (mostly) shaved clean and (as far as we know) isn’t at any point addicted to meth, he shares the chiseled brand of intensity – raging yet dopey – that we’ve come to know spending time with Jesse. For his part though, Paul’s still immensely watchable. We see the gears work as Paul faces the canals of yet another moral trauma; the ticktock of a man on the edge of his rope. No one does wounded like Paul. He’s got haunted down pat.

But regardless of how many times Paul and Waugn try to push the idea that Need for Speed is nothing like Fast and the Furious, don’t believe a word of it. What we’ve got here is very much in the same wheelhouse and a good hair below in quality. Beyond the cars, crimes and carnage, the biggest similarity is the ensemble-driven cast. Speed, whether intentionally or not, seeks to recreate a familiar team of interracial, eclectic banditos. We’ve got the wisecracking black man, the reliable Latino, the standard cut white dude and a vaguely Middle Eastern mechanical genius. It is a surprise however that Scott Mescudi (or Kid Cudi as he’s known in hip hop circles) stands out most amongst a dudery that includes Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson and Ramon Rodriquez. I guess there’s something behind the unadulterated charisma of rappers that translates well into onscreen supporting characters. Who knew?

C

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