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Non-Review Review: Need for Speed

The obvious comparison for Need for Speed is to suggest that the movie feels like a video game. After all, the film is an adaptation of EA’s successful car racing video game franchise, porting the adventure to the big screen. However, that doesn’t quite cover Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed. Instead, his car racing adventure feels almost like a cartoon for most of its runtime, adopting a much lighter tone and more careful visual style than the Fast & Furious series which also invites comparisons.

This cartoonish quality is endearing at points, with certain racing sequences and chases feeling almost like a live-action version of Wacky Races, but it means that the movie struggles to shift gears. Attempts to get the audience to invest in a standard central plotline about redemption and justice are hard to balance against the decidedly over-the-top atmosphere of the rest of the film. There are points where Need for Speed needs to convince us to care about its characters, but it can’t make them seem real – no matter how hard it tries.

Stop right now, thank you very much...

Stop right now, thank you very much…

The most obvious demonstration of this central problem lies in the plot mechanism itself. Need for Speed has a fairly standard story, as far as these sorts of movies go. That’s not a problem, many a successful and exciting blockbuster has been built around a fairly standard premise. In the case of Need for Speed, we’re asked to empathise with a young racer arrested by the police for pulling over after a horrific car accident – effectively owning up and taking some measure of responsibility for his actions.

This is what defines our protagonist as heroic. He doesn’t cut and run. He doesn’t watch the wreckage smoulder through his rear view mirror. He stops the car and tries to help, even if it means facing up to his own recklessness and the consequences of his own decisions. The film’s villain is equally defined in that moment – his introduction immediately established him as shifty and untrustworthy, but he is cemented as the baddie by his self-serving cowardice and disregard for the safety of his fellow drivers.

Collision course...

Collision course…

This is a nice hook. After all, if we’re going to watch a speed racing movie, it’s nice to know that “is concerned about the damage he might cause” is considered an unambiguously heroic character trait. The problem is that Need for Speed doesn’t seem to read the scene this way. Our hero has witnessed the damage and devastation wrought by careless driving, and admitted some small measure of complicity in it. However, the movie’s later action sequences feature various collisions and swerves and damage that our hero seems to relish.

Appropriately enough, Need for Speed follows a very video game logic. Our protagonist’s ethics only come into play when the plot demands it. When a character the audience knows is involved in a brutal collision, we are asked to recognise the lead character’s empathy and sympathy for a fellow driver caught in a horrific accident. However, he spends a significant portion of the rest of the movie colliding with other vehicles and causing multiple car crashes along the way.

It's a long and winding road...

It’s a long and winding road…

There’s a sense that the movie’s ethics operate on a stop-go system. We care about the crashes and destruction when they apply to characters we know, but we are somewhat indifferent when we’re treated to multiple cop car pile-ups. “Officer down!” a helicopter shouts more as background noise than as a stark rebuke to our hero. To be fair, none of the cop cars explode into flames, but Waugh seldom stops the action long enough to assure the audience that these anonymous officers are okay.

“Racers race, cops eat donuts!” the commentator offers by way of excuse. Even within the context of the chase, there’s a sense that there are acceptable targets, drawn in the most cartoonish of fashions. Cop cars are simply an obstacle for our heroes to surmount and fair fodder for exciting car crashes, while a yellow school bus is treated as shorthand for a target that must be avoided. The movie seems to operate on a type of video game logic, as befitting the heads-up display that helpfully recalls the screen layout from the eponymous video game series.

A crash course in pyrotechnics...

A crash course in pyrotechnics…

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this. While the ease with which Need for Speed accepts the use of police officers as cannon (or car) fodder is a little unsettling, it is par for the course. The problem is reconciling this simplistic and one-dimensional set-up with a movie that wants us to car about the characters who inhabit it. The brightly-lit illogical anything-can-happen mood of Need for Speed is desperately at odds with its central narrative about good-old-fashioned revenge and retribution.

The story isn’t even that interesting, which makes the decision to lean so heavily on the redemption of our protagonist feel especially strange. The movie is particularly transparent about the clichés it is employing. The fatal screw-up becomes inevitable the moment that our hero refers to another character affectionately as “little buddy.” The character in question doesn’t seem to have a last name. It’s hard not to see this set-up and plot coming a mile off, but the movie still insists on putting a lot of stock in this tired and trite narrative.

"We're wearing matching leather jackets. We were supposed to text so this sort of thing didn't happen again."

“We’re wearing matching leather jackets. We were supposed to text so this sort of thing didn’t happen again.”

Even characters who weren’t present at the incident and aren’t directly involved in this road trip of retribution still refer to him by first name, as if willing the audience to engage with the plot contrivance on a personal level. Our wise-cracking web-chat host narrator doesn’t talk about a famous car crash or collision. Instead, he talks about “Pete’s death” or “the night Pete died”, a choice that feels quite weird given the narrator has never actually met Pete and is addressing a large audience of people, most of whom also didn’t know Pete.

Even our characters feel decidedly cartoonish. Our hero and villain are juxtaposed against one another. Our hero is noticeably lighter – sandy hair and brighter clothes, complete with a working-class all-American charm. In contrast, the villain is effectively coded for our convenience – his hair is black and his clothes are dark, he’s established as wealthy and upper-class, even if he can’t keep that money and his name and accent are both ambiguously foreign. (Although from two different foreign archetypes, so there’s no potentially offensive subtext.)

Although his clothing, type of vehicle and general associated colour scheme immediately establish him as the villain, at no point does Dominic Cooper cackle madly to himself or mumble about "those pesky kids"...

Although his clothing, type of vehicle and general associated colour scheme immediately establish him as the villain, at no point does Dominic Cooper cackle madly to himself or mumble about “those pesky kids”…

Scott Waugh has populated Need for Speed with an appealing blue and yellow pallet. Most of the movie seems carefully colour-coded to present those warm shades to the audience. The movie tends to focus around that area of the colour spectrum that has become increasingly popular in graphic design lately – there are lots of blues, greens, browns and yellows. (So much that the lead character’s decision to drive a red car at the climax feels a little surreal.) It plays into the sense that Need for Speed has been designed more as a series of pleasant visuals than as a narrative in its own right.

Indeed, Waugh seems to have cast his lead characters as much for their ability to blend into this particular palette. Aaron Paul has blue eyes and sandy hair, while Imogen Poots has blue eyes and blonde hair. At one point, the two characters seem to acknowledge this, having a brief conversation about who has the deeper blue eyes. To be fair, Paul and Poots are far more charming than their thinly-written roles allow – with Poot, in particular, suffering as a character who feels more like a plot function than a person.

Police stop...

Police stop…

To be fair to director Scott Waugh, he has crafted a movie that looks very pleasant. The movie’s 3D is well-constructed and uses depth of field remarkably well. Waugh demonstrates considerable control over the look and feel of the movie, playing up the sense that Need for Speed is a cartoon that just happens to feature live actors and real cars. There are several long shots that look quite appealing to the eye, even if very little of the choreography sticks with the viewer after the film has ended.

Michael Keaton seems to be having something of a renaissance, cast as a wise-cracking commentary and motor-racing pundit. As with the recent remake of RoboCop, Keaton is a highlight of the film. Even delivering subpar material, the actor demonstrates his charm. He gets many of the film’s stronger moments – although few of them can be credited to the lines in the script. Keaton has a wonderful energy and enthusiasm here as a decidedly exaggerated figure.

There’s a sense that the movie would be stronger if it played towards that, rather than trying to convince the audience to go along with a vendetta movie fashioned out of a Wacky Races aesthetic.

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