The most interesting thing about “Need for Speed” (** OUT OF ****) is that it shuns computer generated imagery in its depiction of gravity-defying car crashes. Appropriately, “Act of Valor” director Scott Waugh started out as a stunt coordinator so he has the best credentials to duplicate automotive demolition without CGI. Waugh and company staged all the stunts with practicality foremost in mind. These exotic muscle cars careen chaotically through congested streets and along busy highways in marvelously choreographed demolition derbies that occur in different parts of the country. The rugged American scenery that our hero and heroine tool through and sometimes over between New York to San Francisco is as spectacular as the multi-dimensional 3-D presentation. “Terminator Salvation” lenser Shane Hurlbut enhances the 3-D with sweeping camera movements that occur as the camera is streaking toward as well as away from the supercharged action. Okay, this is not old school, in-your-face 3 D, but it manages to pass muster. Muscle car enthusiasts may cringe at scenes where Waugh’s dexterous stunt drivers wreck Bugattis, McLarens, Koenigseggs, and even a Shelby Mustang! Publicity materials reveal that shells of these expensive sports cars were substituted for the actual vehicles themselves. According to the Internet Movie Database, “The body shell for the Konigsegg, a $4.6 million supercar, cost roughly $300,000.” Although the cars trump the stars, Michael Keaton delivers the only stand-out performance that rivals the gripping racing sequences. He plays a motormouth Internet racing guru named Monarch who invites drivers to compete in his own private illegal road race. Despite fast cars, skillful stunts, and Keaton, this outlandish, but formulaic $66-million illegal street racing thriller generates minor thrills when it doesn’t rely on the lowest common denominator comic relief. Sadly, this undistinguished DreamWorks Studio release pales by comparison with the slicker “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. “Need for Speed” features fewer compelling characters with only sketchy backgrounds. The villain behaves like a hopeless imbecile, and the hero has a tough time dodging the villain’s henchmen! Essentially, since Universal won’t be distributing a “Fast & Furious” sequel this year, you’ll have to settle for the second-rate “Need for Speed.”
Sibling scenarists George and John Gatins penned the predictable, threadbare plot with one-dimensional characters, and too few surprises. Basically, “Need for Speed” pits a poor, small town grease monkey driver from New York state against an affluent professional racing champion. These two guys grew up in the same sleepy hamlet of Mt. Kisco, New York, and attended the same high school. Two-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad” deserved more depth of character to work with than this shallow part provides him as our immaculate but misguided hero. Wrongly convicted of vehicular manslaughter and grand theft auto in this death of his best friend, Toby Marshall (Aaron Paul) serves a two-year stretch in the pen. Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson of “Accidents Happen”) perished in an explosive car crash engineered by Toby’s all-time mortal enemy. Toby, Little Pete, and Dino, it seems, were screaming helter-skelter down the highway in three unlicensed European sports cars when Dino saw he was going to lose the race to Toby. In a fit of insane road rage, Dino rammed Little Pete, and Pete’s car spun out of control, somersaulted in the air, struck a bridge, and blew up. Not only did the treacherous, but urbane villain, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper of “Captain America: The First Avenger”), drive off and let Pete burn, but he also framed our role model hero for Pete’s accidental demise. Earlier, Dino stole Toby’s high school sweetheart, so he has no qualms about taking what he believes that he deserves. Not surprisingly, after he is paroled, Toby plans to wreck vengeance on the dastardly Dino. Toby reassembles the motley group that worked with him at his late father’s garage. The funniest scene shows one of Toby’s crew, Finn (Rami Melek of “Battleship”), quitting his suit and tie, day job in a Detriot skyscraper when he receives Toby’s summons. Essentially, Finn performs a hilarious striptease and leaves the building wearing only his socks. Toby’s other harebrained associate is a military pilot, Benny (Scott Mescudi of “The Bling Ring”), who flies overhead in either aircraft or chopper to alert Toby about potential roadblocks or hazards. Basically, Mescudi hams everything up with a scene-stealing Marlon Wayans impersonation.
Ostensibly, Waugh’s movie is derived from the popular “Need for Speed” video online casino game. This title has been one of the most popular since it came out in 1994. Typically, a player controls a variety of cars in different races. For the record, twenty-two versions of the “Need for Speed” game have been released, and each video game sounds more exciting than its lackluster cinematic counterpart. Ironically, the 2008 version—“Need for Speed: Uncover”—resembles the original “Fast and the Furious” movie released in 2001. Although I am not a gamer, plot descriptions for the various games sound more intriguing that anything that the Gatlins wrote for DreamWorks. Sometimes, Waugh and the Gatins take the time to mimic better movies, such as “Smoky and the Bandit,” “The Cannonball Run,” the James Bond epic “You Only Live Twice,” “Vanishing Point,” and “American Graffiti.” You would think after going to the lengths he went to make his stunts appear believable that Waugh would have insisted the same in the dramatic material. “Need for Speed” has more than enough speed, but not enough adrenaline-laced thrills and chills. Altogether, “Need for Speed” ranks at best as a rental when it hits home video.0