Framed for a crime he didn't commit, muscle car mechanic and street racer Tobey (Aaron Paul) gets out of prison determined to settle the score with the man responsible for his false conviction. Tobey tears up the road in a gritty cross-country journey— one that begins as a mission for revenge, but proves to be one of redemption. Based on the best-selling video game series.
'Need For Speed' drops us into Mt. Kisco in upstate New York, where Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a down-and-out street racer who never went pro and is about to lose his recently deceased father's performance mechanic shop to the bank. Wrenching with his buddies -- Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), Benny (Scott Mescudi), Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), and Finn (Rami Malek) -- Tobey is a blue collar working stiff during the day. But at night, when Mt. Kisco's quiet streets turn into an illegal race course, Tobey comes alive. The local champ, he's even caught the eye of a mysterious man called the Monarch (Michael Keaton), who runs a vlog and the king of all illegal supercar street races, the invitation-only DeLeon.
After Tobey wins the Mt. Kisco race, his old nemesis -- Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) a rich kid turned Indy car driver, DeLeon winner, and who is ALSO dating Tobey's ex-girlfriend Anita -- hires Tobey and gang to finish Carol Shelby's last Mustang, a customized wide-body Shelby GT500 Super Snake. When completed, it'll be worth at least $2 Million at auction, and Dino's willing to pay Tobey 25% of his take. Tobey and the crew do a great job on the Mustang, pushing the price up to $2.7 Million when Tobey proves to Julia (Imogen Poots), a young car broker for her wealthy employer, that the car can go 234mph on the track, making it not only the last Carol Shelby Mustang, but the fastest Mustang on the planet. So long, money problems!
Oh, wait, this is a movie. Things never go well (nor should they). Dino's not happy. He told Tobey not to drive the car and feels betrayed. This is an argument that can only be solved one way. Racing three identical $2 million dollar Swedish super cars (owned by Dino's uncle) across town. When Dino, about to lose to Tobey, rams Pete's car, accidentally sending the young man to a fiery demise, Dino takes off and his supercar disappears without a trace. Tobey is there when the police come looking for someone to blame. And he goes to jail for two years.
That's the first forty minutes of the movie. I'm sorry to dive into so much, but it's not until about here that we get to the film's actual premise:
Out on parole, Tobey has vehicular revenge on the mind. A plan to get a car, his crew back together, and invited to join this year's DeLeon where "Dino will finally get what he deserves." The only problem? The race starts in 43 hours, is all the way on the other side of the country, and he can only take the super Mustang if he allows the strong-willed Julia to ride along so she can protect her employer's investment. Will they make it in time? Evade the cops? Outrun the bounty Dino places on their heads? Hell, can they even earn a spot in the race? Who's to say, sports fans... Just turn the lights down low, the surround sound way up, and drop the pedal to the metal, because this adrenaline pumping flick has a need...
A need for speed.
Writing movie reviews is hard. Not in the "woe is me / please feel bad for me" sense, of course. There are like a trillion other gigs more backbreaking, frustrating, and down right dangerous than this one. But it often feels weird sitting back to judge -- over the course of a day or two -- the artistic merits of something dozens, or even hundreds, of people toiled for years to create.
Granted, we don't need to toss film criticism in the bin, or give up the right to dissect cinema simply because people worked hard to make it. I just try to avoid being a dick if a particular picture doesn't become my New Favorite Movie Ever. Cool?
When 'Need for Speed' arrived for review, two thoughts raced through my mind: 1) no 3D again, Disney? Boo. And 2) I was terribly excited to finally get a chance to tell people why I enjoyed 'NFS' in the theatres. I absolutely loathe how Hollywood's weekend box office reporting has become an odd, tribal "ha, we won, you lost!" sport for so many film fans. These figures really shouldn't matter to anyone outside the film financing world. When, 'NFS' didn't exactly set the domestic box office drag strip on fire, I wondered why 'The Fast and the Furious' franchise could do well, while very few folks gave this franchise a shot.**
'Need For Speed' is aimed squarely at car nuts like me. I've played almost every entry in the long-running video game franchise. I am the proud owner of a Ford Mustang (digital render pictured right). And I absolutely adore the movies that inspired this production. 'Vanishing Point', 'Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry', 'Bullit', 'Gone in 60 Seconds' (1974 and 2000), 'Smokey and the Bandit', 'Speed', 'The Road Warrior', 'Duel' -- are you kidding me? Not all great, but they are all hot rodded cinematic experiences that live and die with rumbling engines and squealing tires, with outlaws and heroes driving their way into our hearts. My ticket was sold from day one, and I had a great time in the theatre opening weekend.
An ambitious film, made with passion and grit and enthusiasm, there's so much to admire here in terms of craft and production value. In our era of CGI-everything, 'NFS' excels at recreating the spectacle of those 1960s/1970s car chase movies with well choreographed 100% real stunts (CGI was only used to remove stunt equipment and, I believe, for digital flames). And not only that... these filmmakers even care about tone and character, trying to balance the action with slapstick comedic gags and earnest, grounded character emotions. It's often a lot o fun.
However, re-watching for a second and third (audio commentary as I write this) time, 'NFS' seems to be unnecessarily complicated and bloated -- an issue facing many modern popcorn movies. I would argue, in setting up Tobey's blue collar world (stuck in a small town, working for a failing business) and the Tobey-Dino rivalry (a rich kid who became a pro AND "stole the girl"), we've already got so much fertile ground. Then we take on the (gorgeous!) Mustang, and revenge, and the world's most exclusive illegal race, and a road trip movie... I mean, there's so much going on, the stripped down version of this story doesn't even start until the 40 minute mark.
Granted, I think these intentions are really smart. Why does a film like 'Man on Fire' play so well? Because the story focused on the Creasy-Pita relationship to the point where the relationship becomes this assassin's only salvation. Take that away, and we burn with him. We want revenge too.
But 'Need For Speed' isn't exactly a revenge film.
Aaron Paul fills Tobey Marshall's shoes well. We feel his quiet pain, his drive for justice and vengeance. But he never really does anything about it. Once he's out of jail, Tobey's character is more distant and doesn't vocalize his plans, leaving Julia to guesses them every few scenes and, therefore, updating the audience. Is he going to kill Dino? Try to find the missing car? Catch Dino in the act and turn him in? Or is he simply trying to ruin Dino's own car business, which desperately needs investors (something Tobey could not yet have learned)? We don't really know, except that it's all for Pete. If this goal was clear, if we could see Tobey charging down a (possibly) tragic path, we could sense how close to, or far away from, achieving this goal he truly is, which would hopefully up tension and pacing.
Further, other than getting to a race, Tobey doesn't have any emotional challenges. He doesn't have to change, grow, or learn anything to succeed. Contrast this with the first 'Fast and the Furious'. Not an amazing film by any stretch, and it's clearly just 'Point Break' with cars, but Dom and Agent O'Conner's relationship is explosive. By the end, O'Conner becomes a man who is going to lose everything -- his career, his moral compass, his best friend, the love of his life -- no matter what choice he makes. As silly as it sounds, that's hugely dramatic.
As with the 'Man on Fire' example, I'm not saying 'Need For Speed' must be more like the 'Fast' franchise. I just wish it knew when to complicate and when to simplify. The backstory drama is too weighted in the beginning, to the point where there are too many threads to pull, ultimately feeling tacked on an inorganic. Most important, we don't know what Tobey's problem is. Why didn't he make it as a racer? Why did his girlfriend leave him for Dino? Why can't he keep the business together? Clarify that (in action, in choices) -- make it one thing (rather than save the shop and then a rivalry and then revenge) -- and we can then figure out how Tobey has to change to defeat Dino and win the race.
Instead, once we get to the road trip and climactic sequences, there's no more drama at all. Sure, there are fun chases and complications, and the 'When Harry Met Sally' Julia-Tobey dynamic works pretty well too, but it's not deep drama driven by theme and pathos. Where's the moral dilemma? Where's the no-win scenario? Where's the potential for tragedy?
Honestly, I feel like a jerk dumping on this in any way. Everyone clearly had a blast working on it, and it shows in terms of craft and technical prowess (by the way, I'm not trying to knock craft down into a "sub-art" category). So, if you're reading this and thinking to yourself, "damn it Palmer, calm down." Please know I simply wanted to explore the movie's internal mechanisms and why, despite wanting to love the film, it might feel a little off or not as riveting as it could be. I just think there's an imbalance of motivations (too many upfront; too few on the home stretch) and clarity, and possibly a little too much time spent homaging what came before.
That said, those things may not bother you. Or, you might think the balance is just right, that the movie is complex when it needs to be, simple when it should be, and distant to keep you guessing. I will say the film's final race and conclusion put a big smile on my face. Tobey has a terrific character moment (though could have been earned a little more). And the last little tag is a big win for Ford fans too. So with all of that, if you like car movies, you'll probably really dig most of 'Need For Speed'. If you're not into cars, this one probably isn't for you, sadly.
**A movie not opening strongly isn't always a measure of film quality (it's much more about whether or not the marketing was successful). Also, in addition to the story points discussed, the 'Fast' franchise is now a completely different beast because they've had time to grow the world over six films which, akin to the Marvel movies, made audience even more invested in the series regardless of each installment's individual quality (number five is probably the strongest entry; however, number five wouldn't work if all of the characters hadn't been set up in previous installments).
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Need for Speed' debuts on Blu-ray courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment. This edition includes one Blu-ray (Regions A, B, C) and instructions to redeem a Digital HD copy on iTunes (not sure about Vudu or others). Trailers, which can be skipped all at once like other Disney titles, include 'Guardians of the Galaxy' and 'Need For Speed: Rivals' (the video game).
Unfortunately, like other notable Disney releases, 'Need for Speed' is only available in 3D internationally.
'Need For Speed' races onto Blu-ray with a flawless AVC MPEG-4 encoded framed in the film's original 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
While it doesn't have the gritty grain of its '70s cinematic inspirations, 'Need For Speed' is a reference quality Blu-ray. Shot on a myriad of digital cameras (including GoPros), the video presentation is ripe with detail, resolution, lush colors, and inky black levels. The movie opens with an extended night sequence -- first under the foggy, neon light backdrops of a drive-in theatre, and then during an racing sequence -- that has some of the best night photography I've seen in a while. Normally, these sequences suffer from washed out black levels or excessive crush. San Francisco at night will take your breath away. Daytime sequence are beautiful as well, crossing the green farmlands of the American south into the red desserts of the wild west. As for errors, I didn't see any. I kept waiting for macro-blocking or banding or aliasing, but nothing caught my eye. Great job.
'Need For Speed' roars onto Blu-ray with a highly articulate English 7.1 DTS-HD MA.
I'm a little torn here, actually. I don't like to handout undeserved 5-star reviews, and if you consider tonal quality along with the 360 immersion this track creates, it's perfect. However, I was a little disappointed by a lack of LFE presence. I expected a little more punch and grunt in some sections. But if that's filmmaker intent, or an accident on my part, I don't want to kick this down to 4.5 stars without reason.
As such, I would call this a 4.8 or 4.9 star sound mix and will therefore round up because, aside from my personal love for subwoofer-heavy soundtracks, 'Need For Speed' sounds freaking terrific on Blu-ray. And not just aggressive either. This isn't simply loud and chaotic. There's a wonderful restraint to even the most action-packed races where you can hear the detail of fence posts whooshing buy along with the whine of a supercharger spine up in RPMs. Dialog is clear too, even in louder moments. Heck, the whole thing is almost like playing the more recent 'Need For Speed' titles on my PS3, which turns out a pretty great live mixed 7.1 experience. However, where the game is limited by (comparatively) low resolution audio files, this movie features sound recorded exclusively for this world, and it shows with extremely articulate immersion that straps you into the drivers seat and drops the hammer.
Other sound mix options include English 2.0 Descriptive Video Service, Francais 5.1 Dolby Digital, Espanol 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles include English for the Hearing Impaired, Francais, and Espanol.
I was unable to find a list of the DVD's special features, so I have no idea if the following is the same across all release formats, or if any are HD exclusives. Regardless, given the film's box office performance, there are a nice collection of extras fans (and car fanatics) will enjoy. The collection is definitely a cut above the standard we're-so-great-EPK interviews. My only complaint is that I wish the film's teaser and theatrical trailers were also included.
Capturing Speed: Making An Authentic Car Movie (HD, 9:45). An all-too-short look at the ways the film was created with as little CGI as possible. Featured here are recreated super cars, newly created camera rigs, and stunt drivers.
Ties That Bind (HD, 12:04). Director Scott Waugh talks about growing up best friends with a multi-generational stuntman family. A touching piece paying respect to the passion and dedication these men have for creating visually dynamic stunt work. My favorite part is the father complaining about not getting any "gags."
The Circus Is In Town (HD, 10:50). Director Scott Waugh narrates a still-photograph tour across the country, chronicling the film's production as they move from location to location.
Audio Commentary. Director Scott Waugh and star Aaron Paul sit down to reminisce about making the movie. It's a highly technical, but still entertaining track that focuses on a lot of the car movie influence easter eggs, on set anecdotes, and production challenges.
Monarch & Maverick Outtakes (HD, 1:43). Probably a lot funnier to the cast and crew.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 5:09). Four scenes -- Pole Position, Princess Julia, Salt Flats, and Jailhouse Dance Party - Extended Scene -- were left on the cutting room floor (in the computer's trash folder?). These include a director introduction and can be played all at once, or as individual scenes.
The Sound of Need For Speed (HD, 9:25). A Soundworks Collection video that's, oddly enough, only in stereo sound. 'NFS' was mixed natively in 7.1. Interestingly, they separate multiple layers of sound by using not only spacial pans, but also using different frequencies (high, mid, low). Car guys are also going to love seeing the vehicles the sound engineers mic'd up to capture the sound effects. The musical score too was written in 5.1 and recorded in 7.1.
As an homage to classic car chase movies, 'Need For Speed' is an exhilarating ride that traded CGI for real-world stunts, an effect that pays off in authenticity. However, an overloaded first act and distant character choices in the last two thirds of the movie might make it more challenging to enjoy for those not in the car nut demographic. As a Blu-ray, 'NFS' delivers gorgeous HD video, a highly articulate sound mix, and a nice collection of special features. Sadly, 3D fans will have to import this title. Recommended to car fanatics and audiophiles; give it a rent first, everyone else. Overall, worth a look.