Think adapting War and Peace is hard? Try adapting the race car video game Need for Speed. Tolstoy’s 1,225-page behemoth has nothing on the Electronic Arts franchise’s irreconcilably complicated 20-year, 20-installment history: Sometimes cars are subject to physics; sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they’re invulnerable; sometimes they break. Maybe you’re in London; maybe the fictional Olympic City. You could have free will to roam; you could be stuck on a track. You could be a car or a human, an outlaw or a cop. With so many alternate realities to please, it’s no wonder Scott Waugh’s moronic flick has multiple personalities — it’s the Sibyl of street racing, with a script that doesn’t feel so much typed as button-mashed.
Inspired by the first The Fast and the Furious film, itself half-video game, 2003’s Need for Speed: Underground introduced the concept of plot to the series. (Sort of. Wikipedia sums it up as, “Time passes, races are won.”) Now, as though modern culture is just an ouroboros made by a Gran Torino doing wheelies, the $4 billion-selling video game wants to become its own movie, a cash-bleeding act of hubris akin to a rock star launching his own restaurant chain.
Like porn, another art form where characters are blank audience surrogates, the video game version of Need for Speed emphasized action over individuality. The hero was merely called The Player. Now Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) steps into the void. He’s at least given a name, Tobey Marshall, but not much else. Tobey is silent, stoic, and boring as hell. I’d rather watch Matthew McConaughey steer an Austin pedicab than grok Tobey careening around a mountain bend.
Tobey hails from Mount Kisco, New York, a motor-mad hamlet where he and his broke buddies (Kid Cudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) rebuild cars at a struggling garage so decked out in Americana you expect a waitress to roller-skate out with milkshakes. At night, the entire town heads to the drive-in to watch Steve McQueen’s Bullitt before powering up some CIA-level spy gear for dangerous drag races through the apocalypse-empty streets. During race one, they almost kill a homeless man. Whatevs, bro. During race two, a daytime dare against black-leather-clad baddie Dino (Dominic Cooper), Tobey drives the wrong way on a highway, causes several bystander wrecks, and watches his friend’s car flip over 12 times, tumble over a bridge, and burst into flames.
Dino denies he was there. (None of the 70 drivers they almost ran off the road can remember a red sports car?) Tobey is imprisoned for manslaughter. Good. Not to be a killjoy, but if filmmakers are going to embed pixel mayhem in the photo-real world, then they’re inviting us to ask if this shit is sociopathic. Especially when you use real cars, real wrecks, and layer this nonsense with a dramatic, weepy score that sounds like a drama about a dog with cancer. Regardless, we’re meant to root for Tobey to avenge his sidekick’s death by doing even more of what got him killed. Everyone acts as though they’ve been huffing diesel fumes. Tobey’s friends wear red to the kid’s funeral, get engaged to his killer, wander naked though office buildings, and steal Apache helicopters. And don’t get me started on Tobey fleeing parole for a cross-country drive where he recklessly picks fights with the police, or on the fact that none of the cops has heard of road spikes, or that at Tobey’s finish-line destination — a big race in California — the grand prize is the other contestants’ cars, which all get destroyed on the track.
Two Emmys aside, it’s tough to be Aaron Paul. So far, he’s proven himself talented at playing one specific character, an antic man-child who bleeds his soul on the screen. He’s trying to prove his range, which in the Era of Gosling means frowning, crinkling his eyebrows, and glaring over his shoulder. Occasionally, he pants. For bonus points, he’s the only guy in the movie who doesn’t punctuate a sentence with his signature line, “bitch.” But he’s so action hero-blank it’s like Paul is smudging an eraser over Jesse Pinkman when he should write something new over him in bold Sharpie.
The bigger waste is ingenue Imogen Poots as The Babe Who Likes Cars. She’s daffy and charming in a part that’s further beneath her than skid marks on pavement. In her first scene, she schools Tobey on the horsepower of a rebuilt $2.7 million Mustang, then buys it, and yet still spends the rest of the film being treated like a useless bimbo. When she insists on joining Tobey on his adventure because he’s borrowing her boss’s car, he tries to scare her off by nearly getting into a dozen accidents before she even clicks her seat belt. I guess girls have cooties.
At least Need for Speed is the rare case where the press notes tell the truth. Allow me to quote: “When EA first began thinking about the possibility of bringing their iconic video game to the big screen, they decided to take a proactive approach and not wait for the right script.” Perhaps Tolstoy could have helped. Surveying the wreckage of Tobey and Dino’s drag race feud, he’d already have a title: War in Pieces.