Review: Need for Speed (2014)

The trend of average-to-awful film adaptations of video games continues with discount Fast and Furious movie, Need for Speed.

Need for Speed (2014)

Director: Scott Waugh (Act of Valor).

Starring: Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad, Exodus: Gods and Kings), Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Mamma Mia!), Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later, The Look of Love), Kid Cudi (Entourage), Ramón Rodríguez (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Battle: Los Angeles), Rami Malek (Night at the Museum, Mr. Robot), Michael Keaton (Spotlight, Birdman, Batman Returns), Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey, Blackmass).

The trend of average-to-awful film adaptations of video games continues with discount Fast and Furious movie, Need for Speed. But it’s not as terrible as you might first think.

Translating video games to the film medium is a difficult task. Perhaps I’ll go into longer detail at another time, but for now, let me break down why in just a few points.

  1. Often, the film is trying to adapt the video game source material, which has normally been previously adapted from elsewhere. So more often than not, you have a stretched out, misunderstood plot. (Not a problem in Need for Speed‘s case)
  2. The director will try to ‘game-ify’ the film, as a wink and a nudge to viewers, saying “Hey, look, it’s just like the game, check it out, hey, great isn’t it!”. (Applies to Need for Speed).
  3. And 90% of the time, the film is ‘based’ around the game purely for branding and marketing reasons. (Kind of the case but we’ll get into that).

There are of course, several other obstacles, but these are the main problems when adapting interactive entertainment to purely visual entertainment.

I’ll give praise to the film’s casting, everyone manages to play to their strengths.  Aaron Paul is a good choice as Tobey Marshall, the film’s protagonist. He manages to be a stern mechanic while also hitting the harder emotional beats quite well. Dominic Cooper plays a great villain as Dino Brewster, and Imogen Poots puts in a lovely performance as witty and funny co-driver Julia Maddon. There’s a couple of surprise castings that’ll make you wonder “How did they get dragged into this?”. Dakota Johnson has roughly a total of four minutes screen time as Anita Coleman, and Michael Keaton is the race competition’s grand master, Monarch Maddon. Neither are entirely needed nor are either well acted. But as B-movies go, they’re adequate.

Tobey, Dino and Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) get into a street race with some fast cars. Standard Need for Speed fare. Dino, angry that’s he’s about to lose, hits the back of Pete’s car, causing it to lift, flip and explode simultaneously. Tobey goes back to check on Pete (but he’s dead), leaving Dino to win, but also framing Pete, leaving him to sit in jail for two years.

As far as motivations go, retribution is again your typical B-movie go-to. It doesn’t feel very Need for Speed, but there we go.

The first glaring omission from the film is a licensed soundtrack. What comes to mind when someone mentions Need for Speed to you? It’s likely going to be ‘customization’, ‘police chases’ or ‘booming, urban, hip-hop soundtrack’. Underground, Most Wanted, Hot Pursuit, they all had great soundtracks, but in the film, all you’ve got is the roar of the engines and burning rubber. It’s yet another tragedy of the transition from game to film, there’s an emphasis on dialogue which obviously takes precedent, but that’s not an excuse when the majority of the driving consists solely of wide shots of Aaron Paul staring out of a windscreen. Even Fast and Furious films have decent framing and editing, shots of changing gears, looking in wing mirrors and so on. Need for Speed has the gall to position the camera so the audience gets a first person perspective inside the car, just as you do in the game. While it does start to feel more natural later in the film, it’s very disorienting when it firsts occurs.

It differentiates itself enough to be interesting, but also should have borrowed a few of the elements from the competing series. As tired as Fast and Furious is beginning to feel, it has admittedly perfected some of the things about the racing-film genre (though it’s debatable if the later films are racing films). Need for Speed’s directing suffers from a lack of visual flair. A shame, since the movie has lots of great set pieces, yet they’re all filmed with little care to visual style or excitement.

However, I imagine if this film had released a few years back, before the likes of Fast & Furious 6 and Fast 5, I might have hated it a lot more. But as the stunts and ever-growing stakes of the Furious series get bigger, bolder, but not necessarily better, Need for Speed provides a fresh break from ostentatious stunts and repetitive “one last ride”. Vin Diesel has become an immortal, who will survive anything. Aaron Paul and cast appear vulnerable creating some humanity for the characters, it’s one of the better things about the film. Sure, Fast and Furious might be more fun and better produced, but for those tired of seeing The Rock putting people through floorboards and Diesel flying out of cars, Need for Speed is a nice amendment to the genre.

There’s of course, lots of room for improvement, I say as an armchair film director/producer/writer. The script limits what the film can do. If I had (poorly) written the script, I’d have set it around a couple of street racers making their way through the underground racing world, besting one another creating immense rivalry. The underground would bring booming bass tracks, deeply customized motors, and neon lights for days. Two rival gangs, each with their own motif and theme. Add a personal touch to the story, perhaps the rival racers are actually brothers or something, who knows. Get one of the directors from the Fast and Furious franchise to direct, and there we go. Maybe some of these ideas and problems will be alleviated in the sequel.

Some will enjoy Need for Speed, others will endure it. If you’re a fan of fast cars, racing films or the game, then this will probably satisfy you to an extent. If you’re looking for anything deeper, turn anyway now. Comparisons to the Fast and Furious series will be inevitable, and rightly so.


Feature image credit:Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures


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