‘Need for Speed’ stalls in commercial gear

‘Need for Speed’ stalls in commercial gear

By Karsten Burgstahler

At Walt Disney World, there’s a ride called “Test Track.” The attraction simulates the strenuous process a car must go through to prove it can hold up on the road, and riders are sent through anti-lock break tests and steep grade hills.

Recently Disney updated the ride to be a better reflection of corporate sponsor GM. When I got on the ride last week and heard the automatic voice announce that OnStar was kicking on, I audibly groaned. I couldn’t think of a more irritating car product placement. But now I can.

Scott Waugh’s “Need for Speed” (Rated PG-13; 130 Min.) is one huge commercial for Ford. Every chance the filmmakers get we see the main character’s Mustang from different angles. And Waugh’s camera always ensures that frontal shots of the car include the grill, with the galloping mustang gracing the center.


Of course a viewer would expect a certain amount of product placement in a movie about cars — it’s inevitable. Teenage guys like to fanaticize about driving Ferraris 200 miles per hour down the road. But where “Need for Speed” stumbles is its stubborn refusal to do much to make this anything beyond a well-shot commercial. It doesn’t reach the melodramatic family-drama heights of the original “Fast and the Furious,” but it also doesn’t approach the ridiculous heists and chases of the later “Fast” movies. What’s lacking here is a scene where Ludacris actually delivers the line, “Uh guys, they’ve got a tank!”

What “Need for Speed” doesn’t lack, however, is a cool leading man on his way to better things. Aaron Paul is about the only bright spot in the movie as Tobey Marshall, a mechanic who ends up losing a friend in a street race against his rival. That rival, Dino Brewster (played with an apparent lack of interest by Dominic Cooper), hides the evidence that he was involved and lays all the blame on Marshall, who ends up going to prison.

Two years later, Marshall gets out. He wants revenge, and he’ll get it by traveling across the country in a ridiculously fast Mustang as random people try to kill him to try to get their hands on a Lamborghini, offered up as a bounty by Brewster, who wants to cover his tracks. Why these people are willing to destroy a $3 million Mustang and murder a guy to obtain another car is never really explained. It sounds like a bad reality show, but no, this idea was actually greenlit to become a movie.

“Need for Speed” clearly aspires to be something in the vain of Steve McQueen’s classic car-chase film “Bullitt,” which also prominently featured a Mustang. In fact, in the opening scene of the movie some of the characters watch “Bullitt” at a drive-in theater. But aspiring to be like a classic muscle car isn’t good enough these days. Nothing will substitute for the real deal in a culture where car chases are a dime-a-dozen on the screen.

Returning to Paul, the actor has the presence and the chops to be a Steve McQueen in his own right. He proved himself on “Breaking Bad” and we see a bit of Jesse’s simmering anger here, but not quite enough to convince us Paul is into the character. It’s as if he loved the idea of taking on a McQueen-esque role, but saw the script and realized it was too late to back out.

Beyond Paul, the characters might as well be professional drivers on a closed course. We get little-to-no background about his crew, not nearly enough information to give the audience any emotional stake in the movie. The old rivalry between Marshall and Brewster is never clearly defined, so the movie never really builds a sense of good versus evil. It’s more like two upset guys willing to do ridiculous things to each other to get revenge.

Because the plot provides zero engagement and neither do the characters, “Need for Speed” is stuck in a limbo filled with meaningless car chases and less meaningful dialogue. All we’re left with a bunch of flashy explosions and revved engines.


Bottom line: there’s no soul to this cold steel mass of a movie. And it’s going to take a lot more than a good performance from Paul to bring it back to life.

Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at [email protected], on Twitter @kburgstahler_DE