Monday, 17 March 2014

Movie Review: Need for Speed

‘Need for Speed’ is the latest in a long line of endeavours to take a video game and adapt it for the big screen. The past is littered with failed attempts, each worse than the last (‘Hitman’, ‘Max Payne’, ‘Silent Hill’) but with a star like Aaron Paul who has just come from huge success on television, and a novel approach to handling the action onscreen from director Scott Waugh, could this be the film to finally establish video games on the big screen?

Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), a former race car driver and current mechanic, struggles to make ends meet in the business he has inherited from his late father. When Marshall is given an opportunity to save himself from bankruptcy by old rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) he seizes it, but what Marshall underestimates how much animosity the two drivers still have for each other, something that ultimately leads to ruin.

Narrative was the not the priority when they were making this movie, clearly, but that is not to infer that the story ‘Need for Speed’ does tell is bad, in fact I would say that it is far superior to any that The Fast and the Furious series has attempted to tell for the past 8 years. Nevertheless, there is very little here that will come as a surprise to anyone who has watched this genre before. The circumstances in the movie’s prologue, which set the story into motion, are heavily signposted and extremely predictable, yet shockingly I still found that the intended emotional swell delivered somewhat of a gut-punch of sentiment in spite of how my expectedness. The lion’s share of the credit here belongs with Aaron Paul who handles this particular scene impressively well given the melodramatic nature of the scripting.

Aaron Paul proves that his work on 'Breaking Bad' was not just a one-off.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Aaron Paul’s leading performance is the standout of the film. Paul’s initial scenes are, if I’m honest, quite half-assed as rather than just delivering his lines as normal he opts for an oddly throaty James Dean impression that is utterly bizarre. Nerves may have been the culprit here though as Paul slowly relaxes into the role and goes on to give a very solid performance with some crests of emotional depth, proving that his award-winning role on ‘Breaking Bad’ was no mere fluke, and that he is an actor of leading a production in his own right. The rest of the cast, aside from Imogen Poots and Michael Keaton, are almost universally awful as they flounder in their badly scripted roles with some of the most wooden performances I’ve seen in quite a while.

I found Imogen Poots’ character to be the most likable in the film, a result I feel is more down to the charismatic performance given by the actress rather than the written character. In this film Poots proves herself to be a very promising talent, this combined with her brilliant performance in the Michael Winterbottom film ‘The Look of Love’ makes her one of the most impressive young actresses working today. The final acting highlight of the film is the great Michael Keaton who plays the motormouth radio host of the underground race that acts as the MacGuffin of the film. Keaton is as entertaining in the role as you would expect but I was surprised to find how well cast he was, his character Monarch is quite eccentric and often sermonises through his show, in these scenes he uses flamboyant but effective language that works wonderfully with Keaton’s distinctive voice, sometimes imparting a feeling of awe amongst proceedings.

The video game series that this movie is based on offers little story that can actually be adapted onto the big screen, instead it provides a specific look and tone, something that I was happy to see this film pick up on and utilise throughout. There are references that gamers will immediately recognise such as the use of first person viewpoints from the driver’s seat of the car as well as the inclusion of locations that look almost identical to tracks from various Need for Speed games. This obvious mark of respect for the source material, however loosely adapted it may be, was a pleasant sight to behold as a fan of the video game series, and quite shockingly made this film a faithful adaptation.

An example of the clear inspiration the film takes from the Need for Speed video game series.

There is a definite art to shooting cars in motion, whether they are in a chase, a race, or even just cruising at low speed, how they are photographed is a vital component in the audience’s enjoyment of the film. For example, imagine a car chase made up of close camera angles on wheels with numerous rapid edits snapping back and forth from the chaser to the chased. This may very well yield a tense scene but it is something that will exhaust the audience if it is carried on for too long. This is something that ‘Need for Speed’ director Scott Waugh obviously understands because this film features some truly spectacular car scenes filmed in a very cinematic fashion. What I appreciated most about ‘Need for Speed’ was its intention to put true focus on the cars themselves, something we haven’t seen The Fast and the Furious do in quite some time (Perhaps seeing Vin Diesel fight his way through a plane travelling on an impossibly long runway was always the intended focus of the series). Waugh has made some ballsy choices in the making of this film, the most notable of which is his choice to forgo CGI in favour of real-life stunt work, this is a case where the magnitude of the decision cannot be understood until you watch the film and see the incredible action work Waugh was able to achieve without the assistance of computer wizardry.

The car that sets the film into motion, the Shelby Mustang worked on by Carroll Shelby himself.

This movie is really trying to take this genre in a different direction, it’s not a move that a lot of people are going to immediately appreciate but it is something that I am happy to see, even if there is quite a bit of fat to trim if it there is going to be any sort of future for this film in regards to a series. Personally I would like to see what lies in store for these characters but that is a decision that rests on the viewing public and their approval of the film. ‘Need for Speed’ breathes some life into an increasingly stale genre, and for that alone it has my respect.

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