Ever since Wing Commander, I’ve maintained a passing interest in game-to film-adaptations, especially if I’ve actually played (and enjoyed) the game or series in question. Some years ago, with the day to myself, I went to see the film version of Max Payne on my own, and though the film wasn’t a total turkey, the feeling persisted that I could have made much better use of the time (plus although going to the cinema alone felt perfectly normal, the solo pre-film beer and burger in a nearby Wetherspoons, without the comfort of smartphone doodling, was a little depressing – there’s only so much mileage in pretending to send and receive text messages). Anyway, the days of going to quite such lengths to take in a bad film are long gone, but I was interested enough in The Need for Speed to catch up with it when it popped up on Netflix.
Warning: mild spoilers ahead!
The first Need for Speed game did have a lot of video clips, but they were, in the main, 90s Top Gear slow-motion car-wank type stuff, with a couple of brief handcuffing scenes if you got stopped by the cops. When Black Box took over responsibility for the franchise, though, particularly from 2005’s Most Wanted onwards, there was a more concerted attempt at providing a story, with real actors participating in fairly ludicrous cut scenes that maintained a certain B-movie charm if you didn’t take them too seriously. So there was potential in a film adaptation, especially as everyone seems to enjoy those Fast and Furious movies.
Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul is Tobey Marshall, mechanic by day, street racer by night. Struggling for money, he gets suckered into working for pantomime villain Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), an arrangement that leads to death, disaster and Tobey’s incarceration. When he gets out, he wants revenge, the only way he knows how – by racing cars!
Actually, there’s more to it than that – and not in a good way, because The Need for Speed is a lot more complicated, and lengthy, than it needs to be. A lot of details, and some characters, appear superfluous: Michael Keaton is in it for a bit, although he seems to be acting in a different film, contributing what appears to be a deliberately confusing opening monologue, before popping up at various points to offer largely unnecessary commentary. Dakota Johnson, as Tobey’s ex, is another who has virtually nothing to do except stand around for a bit and look sad. Inevitably, Tobey also has a ‘crew’, whose forced banter and minimal chemistry call to mind the awkward throwing together of characters from the various Fast and Furious movies (I wasn’t a big fan of the more recent entries in the series).
In fact, the whole opening bit could have been cut down by about half an hour. You sort of know what’s going to happen: indeed, there’s a naive younger brother type who may as well be wearing a T-shirt with I am going to die quite soon (but perhaps not as soon as you’d like) written on it. If the intention is to try and provide a bit more depth and some insight into the various characters and their motivations, it doesn’t work. I don’t mind clichés in a genre movie, but this is all very laboured, and the main setup could have been laid out more quickly without very much being lost in the process.
When they do finally get going, it’s actually quite good fun for a while. The strongest bit involves our protagonists driving across the US in a bid to actually get to the start line for the big race finale. Here, there’s a chance for Paul and Imogen Poots, whose character Julia is – for slightly inexplicable reasons – along for the ride, to develop a bit of a relationship, while his crew assist them in negotiating the series of chases and challenges that they meet along the way. There are some great set pieces here, and at this point TNFS sort of calls to mind older cross-country racing flicks like Smokey and the Bandit (to which there is a passing reference) although – and it could just be my age, or a testament to the effectiveness of the stunt work – I did start to worry about the safety of other innocent road users in a way that I didn’t with most other racing films.
I like Aaron Paul but he’s not got much to work with here, and too often his intensity manifests itself in a variety of constipated expressions. And before l looked her up on Wikipedia, Imogen Poots almost became the latest British actress to incorrectly suffer my accusations of employing a fake British accent. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the use of a British accent in these Hollywood movies and TV shows that just really grates with me. (Having said that, Dominic Cooper is also British, and it might have added to his general nefariousness if he’d kept his accent too.) The film also changes its mind about whether Juila does or does not know about cars at various points – in one breath she’s going on about horsepower and mudflaps (not literally) and in another she’s being all squealy about handbags (literally) and not knowing what’s going on.
The film is fairly faithful to the games, if you’re familiar with them. There are a few sequences that switch to a dashboard view; the opening night race could be from Carbon, and later sections recall Hot Pursuit and The Run. In fact, it’s very similar at times to The Run, which had movie aspirations of its own. Series tropes like cars pulling up to the start line like they’re some kind of caged animal are also referenced. As good as the on-screen racing is, though, the overriding feeling is that you do sort of want to play the games afterwards: perhaps that’s the point.
Anyway, The Need for Speed is too long, and a little bit all over the place, but it’s intermittently entertaining and, as I mentioned, I certainly enjoyed it more than the more recent instalments of Fast and Furious. It also counts as one of the better films-based-on-a-game that I’ve seen – although, as we all know by know, that isn’t saying much.