Nov 12, 2020
‘Need for Speed’ is So Stupid and We Can’t Look Away
Your humble correspondent has a fancy degree in journamalism and a whole MINOR in cinema studies. She has watched Eisenstein, and read Laura Mulvey, oh yes she has. Several thousands of dollars (still to be paid back) were spent on group projects analyzing the oeuvre of the Coen brothers. And she was totally the only one who did any work on that Powerpoint presentation.
So imagine the shock, the horror, nay, the trauma of this movie critic and artisanal blogger walking out of Need for Speed, and thinking, “Did I…did I just enjoy that?”
You don’t understand much of what’s going on in Need for Speed, which is based on largely plotless video game by EA. Aaron Paul plays a scrappy, working-class illegal street racer trying the save his daddy’s garage. The fact that he is completely broke somehow doesn’t prevent him from having a Cessna as air support, an onboard dash computer integrated with his car, and the parts and tools required to complete an unfinished Shelby Mustang estimated at $2 million. He’s betrayed by totally not skeevy-looking dealership owner (Dominic Cooper), and needs to make it to the fancy illegal street race across the country in two days to seek revenge.
Already none of that makes sense, right? And that’s only about 10 percent of the plot. It’s supplemented by a weird, puppety performance by Aaron Paul, who demonstrates “intensity” with a weird Christian Bale Batman voice and a surprising amount of crying for an action star, and his weird, puppety racing crew, whose names I don’t feel like looking up right now. To be fair, Cooper is a reliable villain, with the appropriate amount of leather jackets and expression of smug self-satisfaction, and Imogen Poots as the love interest is great to watch basically because she seems to be utterly bemused at everything that’s happening around her.
But as bad as all of this is, it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself. First, I could watch Michael Keaton’s ridiculous “Monarch” (the head of the illegal street racing…league? Association?) all day long and long into the night. And totally non-ironically, these are the best action sequences I’ve seen in a long time, stunningly choreographed. While most action directors have turned to frenetic editing to mask their CGI, the cars and the stunts in Need for Speed are almost all real. Director Scott Waugh (a former stunt driver) allows the camera to linger on shots, to let them land and stick. At one point Paul’s car jumps two lanes of traffic, using shrubbery as leverage. In the realm of stunt driving this is almost banal, but when the camera miraculously doesn’t cut away, it’s akin to watching a figure skater execute a triple axle. We’ve seen it a thousand times before but in the hands of an expert it’s just as riveting and effortless-looking as the first time. Michael Bay will continue to destroy our retinas and ear drums with his green screened garbage, but a real action scene is still a truecraft. Waugh might be a terrible director, but as a craftsman he’s not half bad.