With the Fast & Furious franchise already being the mega-moneymaking, neon-lit, supercharged racing elephant in the room, you’re probably wondering if Need for Speed, a movie based on a mega-moneymaking, neon-lit, supercharged racing video game, could possibly bring something new to the table. Right from the get-go, director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) shows you that it can. It’s just a very unexpected choice.

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You see, for a movie based on a flashy, over the top video game, Need for Speed is anything but (Fast & Furious is far closer to the gravity-defying world of the video games). What Need for Speed is, is a very faithful throwback to the more measured car movies of the 1970’s and 1960’s, where souped-up machines and the expert driving of them by stoic men, were really what you paid to see. And Waugh handles this amazingly, creating some true thrill rides as he makes insightful camera choices – no shaky-cam here, you’ll be happy to know – to show off all these incredible machines as they are driven to their limits (and beyond, in some fantastically lensed whirligig crashes).

And drive them, they really do. Waugh comes from a stunt direction background, and wasn’t going to have some newfangled computer doohicky upstage what a stunt team could do for real, and that decision really pays off. When cars are zigzagging through pedestrians or – in one extreme case – soaring over two lanes of busy highway traffic, there’s a sense of anxious awe, as you know that what you’re seeing is all real rubber and metal giving physics the finger and not just a collection of pixels and polygons. The white knuckle driving scenes in this film will leave any petrol head grinning like the front grille on a Mazda 3, while even the most automobile-phobic should get their engines revved a little.

But – and you just had to know a “but” was coming – as perfectly tuned as the car action is, the rest of the film is in sore need of some panel beating (and I promise that’s my last car metaphor. Maybe. Probably not).

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The script, which is surprisingly c0 written by Flight‘s Oscar-nominated John Gatins, is just a mix of cliches, plot holes (pot holes?) and tone deaf dialogue. Leading man Aaron Paul – trading up his Breaking Bad camper for some of the world’s greatest supercars – and female lead Imogen Poots escape the script the most unscathed, but that’s mainly through their respective on-screen charisma (especially Poots’ dialed-up-to-11 car nerd) and not the fender bender human interaction (Okay, now I’m done).

For the record, Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, former racing protege and current down-on-his-luck auto garage owner in a small town that apparently hasn’t yet caught up to the 21st century, as teens still talk about “The City” and get together at the drive-in to watch Bullit. Throwback, indeed. Tobey’s childhood rival, Dino (a weak chinned, strong coiffed Dominic Cooper), who has gone on to become a big deal Indy Car racing star, rolls back into town with a condescending sneer and a lifeline proposition for Toby: Finish building a prototype Ford Mustang that legendary designer Caroll Shelby was working on at the time of his death, and Dino will split the $2 million proceeds from its sale. Despite his crew’s protests and Dino’s clear villain status, Tobey is too broke to refuse.

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Of course, as these things invariably go, old rivalries flare, chests get puffed up, bratty bad guys behave like bratty bad guys, and before you know it Toby finds himself spending two years in prison,  framed for the death of a friend in a racing accident, while the real culprit, Dino, gets away clean with all the cash. Luckily, a secret annual street race organized by the mysterious Monarch (a manic Michael Keaton that has consumed far too much sugar and clunky dialogue) is coming up, giving Toby the perfect opportunity (once he’s raced Cannonball Run style to get there in time) to get revenge on Dino and expose the truth.

I think. I mean that’s clearly what the movie wants us to think is happening, but spend more than 5 minutes thinking about what actually happens, and it all crumbles. What Toby’s actual plan is, is just another in a long list of questions this movie just outright refuses to acknowledge even exists. Such as “Why can’t anybody figure out Monarch’s identity, when he videostreams his own face the entire time?”, “How does Tobey’s friend Benny (a painfully unfunny Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) always find a plane/helicopter to fly in everywhere they go?” and my personal favourite, “Why does Dino leave incriminating evidence in a folder on his desktop?!”.

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Waugh directs all these and more non-racing scenes with just a journeyman’s competency, not helped by the film’s supporting cast who fail to really make any impact.  To be fair though (and no offence to Aaron Paul, who does an admirable job with what he’s been given), everybody with a pulse is actually the supporting cast in this film. The true stars are the highly skilled drivers, the pants-wettingly amazing gallery of cars, and director Scott Waugh’s technical directing ability to show off this high speed/high stakes automobile orgy.

If that’s all you’re after, you should leave the cinema happy, as Need For Speed is simply the best car racing movie to come along in ages. Unfortunately, it’s just not as good a movie overall.

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Last Updated: March 18, 2014

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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