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New film: Need for Speed

Need_For_Speed_posterNeed for Speed
Directed by Scott Waugh

This film might as well have been called “Need for Morality,” Need for Compassion,” or “Need for Something Other than Callous Disregard.” It’s a loud, fast film with some great car related action, but it’s also logically flawed in the manner in which the character development and the plot are almost hypocritically opposed.

We’re given a couple of keys characters: Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is the hero – a good guy who tries to right wrongs; and Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) – the villain with no conscience. The inherent problem is that our hero acts in way that flies in the face of this basic dramatic conflict. He’s loyal to his friends and inclined to prove Dino’s bad actions, and yet he’s also a guy who loves to street race under conditions that show a callous disregard for other road users.

Tobey is the solid hometown guy who stayed and helped his father in the family auto shop. Dino is the kid who made it in the big leagues of racing, despite everybody thinking Tobey is the better driver. Everything about the film is geared towards us rooting for Tobey and yet the writers have him behaving reprehensively in terms of the chaos he leaves in his wake. We’re supposed to be OK with him leaving countless other drivers in the midst of collisions, and likely property and bodily damage, simply because he’s the hero on the hero’s quest.

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We witness this early when one car hits a homeless person’s shopping cart – it’s played for laughs because only the cart (and all they own in the world) is damaged, but it’s also clear that the car wouldn’t have had an opportunity to stop if the person had been a couple of feet further forwards. In terms of caring about the character, the film lost me in that moment – it became like trying to laugh at a “Jackass” skit that put somebody else at risk. Choosing to put oneself at risk is one thing, dragging others into your fun and games is something else entirely.

It’s not that it’s not fun at all along the way, but it’s seriously compromised at the same time. The trailers would lead you to believe that this video game-themed film is little more than a rip-off of the “Fast & Furious” franchise and yet “Need for Speed” draws inspiration from much earlier car classics, such as “Bullitt,” “Vanishing Point,” and “The Cannonball Run.” It isn’t those leagues but there are clear influences along the way and some of the driving scenes, when the stunts or gimmicks aren’t too elaborate, are pretty engaging. Of course we also get those scenes where the car clearly would have sustained significant damage. In one amusing for all the wrong reasons sequence, we get one character commenting on how the suspension isn’t quite set up correctly, as though everything must be perfect, shortly before the car is jumped in an extreme enough manner to destroy the entire chassis.

Much of the action is related to a legendary under-the-radar car race, where drivers race for the prize of keeping all of the cars involved. And yet, in another logically flawed premise, the circumstances are such that the losing drivers are likely to wreck their cars and thus reduce the purse. This isn’t a case of racing for pink slips at the dragstrip. And if you’re behind anyway, what’s the incentive to not risk wrecking your car? You’re going to lose it one way or the other.

One of the main cars, taking center stage for much of the film, is a very specific and highly modified Ford Mustang (or rather several that were used for filming and destroyed along the way). This contributed to Ford wanting to showcase the newest completely redesigned model, which was risky and logistically difficult given that filming occurred six months before the much-anticipated car was due to be revealed to the public. Ironically, the story of making that possible behind the scenes may actually be better than the story being told onscreen (and, for those interested, it can be found here).

Frankly, much of the action and acting was far better than I was expecting but the writing doesn’t do the actors any favors. It’s all highly predictable, in terms of plot elements, and it’s hard to celebrate a hero when he’s leaving a slew of crashed police officers in his wake. This isn’t like the human killing machine who’s good with his hands, who carefully puts people in sleeper holds rather than hurting anybody. This is full-on automotive chaos where an outcome that allows somebody to walk away is a matter of sheer luck. But, at some level, it will still appeal to those of us who simply like to drool at fast, rare cars going fast and becoming rarer in the process.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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