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Need for Speed

With the popularity of franchises like “The Fast and the Furious,” it was only a matter of time before a film adaptation of the popular video game racing series “Need for Speed” blasted its way into theaters. Coming from a series that features only the thinnest of stories (certain installments had none at all), it should come as no surprise that the film of the same name is similarly thin and meaningless. But while thin stories can be forgiven in a video game if the gameplay is solid, it’s hard to look past it here. “Need for Speed” features a capable leading actor with the former “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul, but the movie he’s in is near disastrous.

Tobey (Paul) is a down-on-his-luck mechanic. He owns a shop, but also owes his bank a lot of money. Unless he comes up with a substantial amount soon, the shop will be taken away from him and his crew. As luck would have it, along comes Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a rich entrepreneur who offers him a job: to build a fancy car worth millions of dollars. Once it sells, he’ll receive a quarter of the profit. It’s an easy job and the car is quickly sold, but clashing ideas lead to macho threats and the two, along with Tobey’s buddy, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), end up racing. Dino, who will do anything to win, ends up killing Pete during the race and frames Tobey, who is put in jail for two years for manslaughter. Upon his release, he sets out to win a spot in an underground street race called De Leon, which he hopes will clear his name and prove that Dino isn’t the person he pretends to be.

“Need for Speed” does something that is very hard to do: it brings together parts that are individually very good and mashes them into something that barely functions at all. Aaron Paul, for example, is a better actor than the typical meathead you get in these types of movies and he manages to give the emotional scenes some validity, but those scenes are so overwrought that they’re hard to take seriously. This vendetta Tobey has against Dino is nothing more than a flimsy excuse for high octane car chases. You see, the De Leon race he wants to participate in is actually in California. The problem is he resides in New York, so he has to make the long trek across the country, all while cops chase after him for breaking his parole and street punks try to take him out at the behest of Dino. There’s a proper narrative beginning and ending, but no arc in between. It’s essentially one long car chase.

Tobey also has a passenger, Julia (Imogen Poots), the assistant to the guy who lets Tobey borrow his car to drive across country, which leads to a number of narrative problems. Never mind the obvious question of why this man would let a recently paroled felon borrow his multimillion dollar car to travel cross country to an illegal street race. The biggest fail that derives from this forced companionship is a half-baked romance that falls flat on its face, despite the two spending the majority of the movie together in that car.

Much of this is to be expected, of course. Films like those aforementioned “Fast and Furious” films too suffered from many of the same issues, but that franchise eventually found its footing by realizing its absurdity and embracing it. Despite reaching a sixth installment in what amounts to a pretty thin premise, the popular franchise has only gotten better because of this self-awareness. Conversely, “Need for Speed” is oblivious and takes itself far too seriously. Even its score fails to realize the nature of the film it’s accompanying. By itself, or in another, more appropriately epic film, the score is majestic. It’s a sweeping, beautiful score that fits this film like an adult trying to squeeze into a baby sized onesie. When the score builds and hits a crescendo during such trivial moments like when Tobey and his crew gas up his car without stopping, the realization suddenly sets in that “Need for Speed” has absolutely no clue what it’s doing.

Some visual trickery is the only pleasure one can derive from the film outside of its far too lengthy car chases and races, but even that feels out of place. Its over-stylization is most notable in the random “Vertigo” tunnel shots and when it takes a page out of Tony Scott’s “Book of Manufactured Excitement” with rapidly rotating cameras during otherwise quiet conversations.

But while the film is easy to look at, it’s not easy to watch. The things that work on their own don’t fit within the context of the film, so all it has to fall back on is fast cars, loud engines and macho posturing. That may do it for some, primarily car enthusiasts and those easily amused, but it will undoubtedly bore those who wish for something a little meatier. Isolate certain aspects and you’ll find something worthy, but bring them all together and you end up with the absolute mess that is “Need for Speed.”

Need for Speed receives 0.5/5



Over 80 years ago, silent movie star Buster Keaton released a movie called The General. Critics at the time didn’t appreciate it, nearly all of whom wrote negative reviews. As time went on, however, the cinema world began to realize its genius. Amidst the goofy humor, it was a movie that featured exciting, life threatening stunts. As I watched Keaton jump from car to car and even ride on the front of a train barreling down a railroad tack, I began to realize just how much danger he was putting himself in, all for the sake of my entertainment. I mention this because that movie is truly something special and if you’re looking for thrills, you need look no further than that. Passing by on the 2010 “train action” movie, Unstoppable, to watch The General instead would be a benefit to you, but if you’re so inclined to venture to the theater this weekend to check it out, you’ll find a stupid, half brained, yet absurdly enjoyable piece of nonsense.

Loosely based on a true story, Unstoppable stars Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, an engineer at a Pennsylvania railroad company. Along with the new conductor, Will Colson, played by Chris Pine, they set out to do their daily duties, but they soon find out that a runaway train carrying hazardous material is barreling down the track towards them. After narrowly escaping a collision, they take it upon themselves to stop the train before it derails and kills any citizens in its path.

Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott have gone from the subway to the railroad. Last year, they teamed up for a remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, a similarly stupid, but oddly compelling film that more or less has the exact same problems as Unstoppable. What that film lacked, so does this and both can be compared to other, superior films.

And when you do compare, this doesn’t hold a candle to the aforementioned The General. Unlike that movie where the action and excitement came from the characters, Unstoppable relies on objects. It isn’t until the last block of the movie that the two leads find themselves in any real danger and the admittedly impressive (though derivative) stunts begin. Up to that point, we merely watch the train hit other unmanned means of transportation. Ultimately, that is its biggest downfall.

The movie doesn’t bother so much with the characters, uncomfortably forcing in expositional dialogue in the thick of the action, but instead focuses on the runaway train, treating it as if it were this giant monster hell-bent on taking as many lives as it can. There’s no real villain here, though it makes a flimsy attempt to create one in the form of the company Vice President, played by Kevin Dunn, and its demonic personification of the train is absurd.

Truth be told, the events that unfold before the big climax are a little boring, though that doesn’t stop Tony Scott from attempting to create some artificial excitement with his trademark hectic technique. Like Pelham 123, the camera rarely stops moving, circling around the actors and quickly zooming in with the hopes that we’ll be fooled out of realizing that there actually isn’t much happening.

Scott’s irritating style is distracting, but the stars of the movie pull off the material, which helped me to, at times, forget about the incessantly moving camera. Washington and Pine are great together and, although they have only known each other for a few hours at the beginning of the movie, you feel like they’re genuinely bonding and coming to like each other.

Their fine chemistry together makes up for the lack of substance from the dialogue, a nonexistent problem in The General. That movie was more exciting, fun and funny than all of Unstoppable and it was done without the help of spoken word. While I am recommending this for its idiotically fun nature, I advise also watching that Buster Keaton classic so you can see just how easily a movie from the 1920’s can outmatch a modern big budget blockbuster any day.

Unstoppable receives 3/5