Video game crossovers into film are rarely – if ever – satisfying. The film version never quite captures the universe of the game or too much is changed in the adaptation or the casting is way off. In some cases, it’s obvious that the video game brand was just slapped onto an existing, but unrelated script that was in the same genre. In all of these cases, a disservice is done to both film lovers and video game fans because the film forces both groups to compromise by accepting mediocrity. Some might argue that adapting video games to film can’t be done in a satisfying way since video games have too much player interaction that a film will never be able to capture. There’s some truth in that. Thankfully, Need for Speed is an argument against that truth, offering a thrilling experience for fans of the series and fans of racing movies.
Based on the video game series by Electronic Arts, Need for Speed follows the story of Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), a master mechanic and amateur racecar driver, who runs a small garage by day and who drives in illegal, high stakes races at night. Yet, despite his racing skills and notoriety, Tobey has never been invited to race in the secret De Leon run by the elusive Monarch (Michael Keaton), who is an ex-racer turned promoter.
With Tobey’s shop falling behind in payments to the bank, he’s approached by ex-rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who offers a lucrative proposition. Unfortunately, their business arrangement doesn’t last long when Dino accidentally causes the death of Tobey’s friend during a race, which the police end up pinning on Tobey, who serves two years for the crime. Now out of prison, and with Dino scheduled to race in the De Leon, Tobey reaches out to his old crew and to a powerful business contact to secure a fast car and force his way into the De Leon to settle the score with Dino.
This is one of the few video game franchises that works for adaptation because the series is less about story and more about the gameplay. Players aren’t following the same characters from game to game, there’s no cohesive story throughout the series, and, since the player is the nameless protagonist, there’s no expectation for casting the lead in the film. So the filmmakers had a lot of freedom to make the film they wanted without being too beholden to video game canon. That’s not to say that there aren’t parts of the film that won’t remind of the games, because there are, especially in the last act with police cruisers and helicopters chasing the racers through beautiful scenic routes. By and large, however, audiences don’t need to be familiar with the Need for Speed games to appreciate this film.
Need for Speed is overly long and unnecessarily convoluted for its genre. Ultimately, the story and plot is just an excuse to showcase slick cars performing high-speed stunts. Yet, the overall execution of the film, from the acting to the action, makes the movie fly by. So while a lot of the scenes and a few of the characters are extraneous, audiences will never be bored.
The story is farfetched to be sure, but the actors are all fully committed to their roles and manage to carve out solid performances from the utilitarian plot. Aaron Paul gives his usual stellar performance, finding the emotional core and reality in every choice he makes. He has decent chemistry with romantic interest Imogen Poots despite all of their scenes spent stuck in a car. Unfortunately, there isn’t much for Poots to do with her character, which is purely functional. In fact, the same can be said for the entire cast, but that doesn’t stop them from being interesting to watch, especially Tobey’s crew (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Harrison Gilbertson), who always have something interesting to say or do. Surprisingly, it’s Michael Keaton’s performance that elevates the film and lends it a little gravitas despite his very small role.
The stars of the movie, of course, are the cars and the action. Not only do the cars look fantastic and otherworldly, but the action is presented in fresh ways without any CGI. So all of the crashes and explosions feel absolutely authentic, presenting all of the indescribable details that a CGI artist could never hope to replicate. Moreover, the filmmakers made sure to give audiences a new way to experience this kind of film, placing audiences in driver’s seats in dramatic moments, like when a vehicle is tumbling in the air down to a catastrophic collision with the earth.
Need for Speed was handled very competently and only viewers with incorrect expectations will be disappointed with this film. This is not a movie anyone will be quoting after leaving the theater. Yet, while the story won’t linger in anyone’s minds, most viewers will probably drive a little faster on the way home.