Video games make it okay for the heroes to be thieves, murderers, rapists. Because we are immersed in the game by controlling computer-generated versions of ourselves, the moral dilemmas of the people we control do not affect our ability to play the game. But when a villainous hero is dislocated from a game to a movie, it all changes; how can we sit back and observe a crook with unadulterated sympathy?
This is the illusion Need For Speed tries to master. Toby Marshall is a good mechanic and an even better race car driver. He knows his way around a gear stick. But he does not take part in circuit racing, like Formula One. He races through busy streets, weaving in and out of traffic, causing all sorts of accidents. At one point he sends a homeless man’s trolley into the air and drives off with a smirk. Who are we looking at here? Our hero, or a delinquent?
Need For Speed is a testosterone-heavy promotion for men with inferiority complexes and rage issues. It is not even a movie for car lovers. Instead of fighting, the men in this movie want to “settle it behind the wheel”. My brother is a gearhead, and he would know a lot about the cars featured in this film, but I’m not sure even he would take pleasure in seeing a Bugatti Veyron or a McLaren spiral out of control and land in a ball of fire. The screenplay, written by George Gatins, has no time for technicalities. We want to know about the cars, what makes them tick, what makes them so aggressive and menacing, what makes them, in short, such marvels of engineering, but the screenplay is so hurried that before we’ve settled into our seats, a race has started and cars are exploding.
Toby (Aaron Paul) is a car mechanic. Together with his mechanic pals he runs a large workshop made to look like a bachelor pad on a budget. He is short on cash, he fears, which means he cannot pay his share of the rent, which means they’ll have to close down and get regular mechanic jobs. Oh no. In a sly twist of fate, an old acquaintance, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), turns up with a proposition: He will get Toby to restore a classic Ford Mustang (not so classic, since it is the 2015 model) and give him 25% of the profits once it is sold for at least 2 million dollars. If anyone were to ask my opinion, I’d say a deal like this is too good to be true. But for argument’s sake, and the sake of the plot, Toby accepts, and I’ll have to keep my reservations to myself.
Dino and Toby have some bad blood between them. We never quite learn what it is, or why it is, but it’s there, like the character of Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), the British car dealer sadly thrown into the story to provide meagre oestrogen balance. There is a preposterous scene that requires the Mustang be refuelled while on the road, zooming at 150km/h. Julia is in the passenger seat, and when the guy doing the refuelling can’t reach the fuel cap from his fuel truck, she climbs out the car window to give him a hand. I shudder to imagine what might happen if the guy can’t get the airplane’s cap to open while performing mid-air refuels.
The plot continues: Toby has a good friend, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), who is young, rash, and sincerely irritating. The two of them find themselves in a race against Dino, who cheats by nudging the rear end of Pete’s car, sending him swirling up and over a bridge. Dino flees, leaving Toby as the sole suspect, even though he has absolutely no motive and there were clearly three cars in the race. Whatever witnesses the cops pulled up clearly need CAT scans.
After serving two years, Toby is out and full of vengeance. He wants to enter the De Leon, a super secret underground race organised by The Monarch (Michael Keaton). He knows Dino will be there, and revenge is a dish best served hot and incredibly fast. I will not tell you what happens during the race, or the events that set it up. What you can, and must, know is that there are many beautiful cars on display, and all will meet terrible ends in one way or another. Such is the nature of car movies.
So, you could charge all of Need For Speed’s characters with defamation of expensive property. But more precise would be crimes against humanity. These are not heroes, by any measure. They are self-serving thugs who drive big cars to make up for small brains, who do not pay attention to the rules of society. The movie is well-made and the cars look spectacular — I learn that no CGI was used; every stunt was performed practically — but it’s flimsy consolation. The only people Need For Speed will please, I feel, are the gamers who know its story from Adam, and maybe stunt enthusiasts.
Best Moment | Listening to the roar of the engines.
Worst Moment | Rami Malek’s naked frolic through his office building.