Those of you familiar with the video game series will know that there is no actual narrative in the source material, only fast cars and adrenaline-fueled races. This provides director Scott Waugh with a setting and theme, but gives him freedom in crafting his own story within it. The film follows Toby Marshall, played by two-time Emmy Award-winner Aaron Paul in his first post-Breaking Bad role. Toby owns an auto-body shop and street races on the side. After a business deal with his former rival goes sour, Toby enters the De Leon, the country’s greatest underground street racing tournament, to get revenge with the help of his crew and an unwelcome passenger.
It’s hard to talk about Need for Speed without mentioning its main competition, the Fast and Furious franchise. The film easily establishes itself as a different beast than the Vin Diesel vehicle (pun intended) by taking a more realistic approach to street racing and refusing to include a lot of hammy machismo. There are no computer graphics to be found in this film, which blew my mind after seeing it. The action is incredibly exhilarating, incorporating a lot of intelligent cinematography and point-of-view shots, which help tie it to the games. The decision to use all practical effects was brilliant. There may not be as many huge explosions as most modern blockbusters, but the fact that everything is real makes it feel more effective and exciting than even the most realistic CG. You’ll see in a lot of interviews with the director, cast and crew that this film aims to be a throwback to classic car films such as Bullitt and Vanishing Point, a goal they fully realize. Keen viewers will find a lot of Easter eggs and references throughout the movie for the films that inspired it.
Another element that helps Need for Speed stand out from similar fare is the pacing of the film. Though the action and race scenes are fast and exhilarating, the story is more drawn out (the film runs a quick 130 min), letting us get familiar with the various characters so that we are more invested when things go wrong. Humor is injected at just the right times to add moments of levity that balance out the overall serious tone of the film, which is something I feel is sorely lacking in the Fast and Furious series. Aaron Paul plays a charismatic lead, providing a strong core to the well-constructed film. Imogen Poots plays a fun sidekick, never feeling like window dressing. Dominic Cooper provides a good, but generic, villain.
Need for Speed takes the framework of a great adrenaline-fueled video game series but makes it something more. By looking to classic racing and car films for inspiration, the film reminds us just how good action movies can be when made practically, and that a strong storyline can be just as important as the action that drives it (pun intended. Sorry can’t resist). Whether you’re a car person or not, Need for Speed will both get your heart racing (last pun, I swear) and keep your eyes locked on the screen the whole way through.