Friday, March 14, 2014

Car Talk: NEED FOR SPEED


Need for Speed is never better than when it spends time hurtling along in and around cars going top speeds down city streets, country roads, highways, and byways, racing and chasing in reckless and exciting ways. Luckily, those sequences feel like they take up just about the entire movie. It’s a fairly preposterous plot full of posturing archetypes, the kind who can’t handle much of an emotive burden and are never as funny as the movie thinks they are. They’re there only to help create enough of a story to string along scene after scene of cars zooming, providing just enough downtime and modulations of noise to prevent the whole movie from becoming a monotonous squeal of tires. When those cars peal out down the road, with burning rubber and roaring engines, it’s a visceral kick. With a movie like Need for Speed, based on a series of racing video games and advertised as a nonstop chase, what more do you need to see? It’s important not to cheat yourself out of simple movie pleasures such as these.

Director and co-editor Scott Waugh worked for many years as a stunt coordinator and stuntman on all manner of big exciting action sequences in films for the likes of John McTiernan, Michael Bay, and Doug Liman. He knows his way around a car chase, shooting them at top speeds with crisp, smeary digital photography that catches a motion blur off the gleaming paint as the sound design works with a bass kick of gears shifting and tires sliding. The star of the movie is a modified Ford Mustang. Waugh is always sure to let the camera linger on car logos, giving each new vehicle entrances that are usually reserved for starlets and special guest stars. The Mustang is tricked out to go fast; its top speed is somewhere just north of 230 miles per hour. A financially struggling mechanic (Aaron Paul) does the job for a snobby and insecure professional racecar driver (Dominic Cooper). They may be the humans that make the cars move, but their interpersonal struggles are sublimated at every turn into the action of the vehicles through the aggression of their driving.

And Paul certainly has reasons to be angry with Cooper, who cheats him out of millions of dollars, causes an drag racing accident that kills a close friend, and then flees the scene leaving him to take the blame. After a couple years in prison on manslaughter charges, Paul is ready for some macho car culture vengeance. He wants to reclaim his good name and expose Cooper as the smug villain he is. Paul is so good at playing the good-hearted criminal in over his head and paying for it through palpable emotional pain. He did it for five seasons on Breaking Bad, after all. Need for Speed calls on him to play a similar emotional range, but lighter, pulpier. He’s surrounded by a gang of smiling gearheads (Rami Malek, Scott Mescudi, Ramon Rodriguez) eager to help him and a pretty car-loving girl (Imogen Poots) willing to ride shotgun. The plan is to zoom from New York to California in 45 hours, getting the attention of a webcasting drag race tycoon (Michael Keaton) along the way so he’ll give them an invitation to his infamous race and meet the enemy behind the wheel once more.

Does that make a whole lot of sense? I’m not so sure. But the screenplay by George and John Gatins uses it as an excuse to send the Mustang flying down the highway at over 100 miles an hour most of the way. Every few states, there’s a new obstacle. They appear with all the regularity of video game villains. In Detroit, there are cops who pursue them. In Nebraska, a state trooper spots them. In Utah, there are greedy bounty hunters. In California, there are other racers, still more cops, and, of course, Dominic Cooper, who would be twirling his mustache if only he had one. Most of the action takes place in broad daylight, the better to appreciate the impressive stunt work on display. The camera sits on the side of the road, hangs off of cars, flings forward into crashes, and stands back to take in spinning debris. It’s clearly and energetically cut together, ready to show off its best assets.

Waugh has grown as a filmmaker since his debut film, the military actioner Act of Valor, showed a glimmer of promise buried under a self-serious plot, stiff tone, and muddy action. Need for Speed takes itself the right amount of serious, which is to say not enough to be a drag. Waugh lets the scenes between the action get carried along by fine actors in thin parts before plunging back into the well-choreographed excitement of cars going very fast. He knows exactly what kind of movie it is, a throwback to films like H.B. Halicki’s Gone in 60 Seconds and Hal Needham’s Smokey and the Bandit, B-movies directed by stuntmen who reveled in sending real cars careening down real roadways. It’s a movie where the hero gets right up in the face of the villain (so close, watching with the sound down might make you think they’re about to make out) and threatens to prove who is the better man by winning the big race. It’s a movie that is bookended by a symbol (first abstract, later literal) of a lighthouse standing erect at the beachside finish line, to really hammer home the masculinity at stake. It’s a movie where inarticulate characters feel big emotions, anger, love, joy, and express them all by driving as fast as they can.

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