by Coop Cooper
A scummy street racer with a heart of gold (Aaron Paul) is framed for a vehicular homicide by a wealthy sociopath (Dominic Cooper) who deals in high-end ‘supercars’ and illegal racing. When the racer gets out of prison, he plans revenge by attempting to win a massively illegal cross-country race bankrolled by the same wealthy sociopath. For some reason, he brings a condescending English woman (Imogene Poots) along for the ride. Just getting to the starting line of the race becomes hazardous when the arch villain puts a bounty on the rebellious duo.
The idea of illegal road racers being an organized, high-tech operation which utilizes hacking city surveillance cameras and air planes/helicopters to spot police patrols is laughable. This suggests there is a massive amount of gambling and high-level racketeering invested in an extremely risky ‘sport’ which, in reality, is more often conducted by petty street gangs and immature kids which hold little regard for innocent lives. This type of film glamorizes the phenomenon which is evident in the success of the prolific “Fast and Furious” franchise. You might recall one of the stars of that franchise, Paul Walker, recently died in a horrific crash while engaging in the same foolishness as his character did in those films.
I’m not one for censorship or to deny a filmmaker from making a movie that makes money off of a controversial subject. What I am surprised about as how surprisingly uncontroversial illegal road race films are when so many people are inspired by them and die (or kill someone else) while emulating it. As a high school teacher in Los Angeles, I taught many misguided students who were obsessed with and participated in illegal street racing. That particular school has lost more than one student to these races over the years. I know of one road racing fatality – involving an old friend – that will haunt me for the rest of my life. The racers in “Need for Speed” kill each other and pursuing cops during the final race and nearly wipe out an entire school bus full of kids.
Hollywood moguls like Harvey Weinstein have recently vowed to stop glamorizing guns in movies because it hurts the youth of America, but this type of film gets a free pass? Not even a mention after Paul Walker’s death? I don’t get it.
Seeing these guys nearly killing every citizen they fly past on the road doesn’t make me care for any of them. There are bad guys and then only one slightly worse guy, the lead villain. I really liked Aaron Paul in “Breaking Bad” and he isn’t bad here but I’m not sure if his skills have matured enough to make him leading man material. I still see him as more of a sidekick. Imogene Poots seems completely miscast and Dominic Cooper deserves better, more challenging roles. Michael Keaton inexplicably appears as some sort of DJ or sports announcer for these illegal races. His role makes absolutely no sense so his odd inclusion almost isn’t even worth a mention.
For better or worse, the film does have a saving grace… well-choreographed and competently-filmed car chases. Expect plenty of “Dukes of Hazzard” type jumps that would normally render a car too damaged to drive and a few stunts that are too silly to benefit from suspension of disbelief. The exotic cars they drive look more like spaceships than modern vehicles. The ending is fairly ridiculous as well. Hard to see how there can be any real ‘winner’ after all of that nonsense and half of ChiPs bearing down on them the entire race. It also must take place in a strange future where prison sentences are light for such a destructive and deadly amount of mayhem.
There is no realism here, only aberrations in physics and logic which serve entirely as a vehicle for adrenalin-soaked action scenes; a hollow throwback to the bombastic over-the-top films of the 1990’s. It’s also worth noting that “Need for Speed” is an adaptation of a popular and longstanding racing video game franchise.
It’s a dumb, irresponsible movie but that doesn’t keep it from being watchable. A lot of people will like it for its flashy presentation and spectacular action scenes. However, I do wish Hollywood, the media and casual viewers would recognize how a race car used maliciously can be as deadly as a gun, even if it’s not a politically sexy topic these days.
Rating: 1 and 1/2 out of 5 stars