Need for Speed

“Cool Trick, Bro…: The Movie”

That’s what I mused a more appropriate title for Need for Speed might be as the prized Ford Shelby Mustang performed “the grasshopper,” a nifty car trick involving grass and hopping that is, as Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), the passenger on a cross-country journey conducted well above the speed limit, points out, way more dangerous than “BUS! BUS! BUS!” while probably not being deserving of the instant adoration and googly eyes it elicits from Julia, our “strong female character” who doesn’t take no nevermind from dumb boys… unless you are really good at driving. I also thought it as our protagonists lean out of speeding cars on interstates so they can fuel up the Mustang without stopping. Or as they are warned of upcoming traffic by their eye in the sky (Kid Cudi as the comedic relief), and then aim directly for it, careening in and out of the way of other vehicles because that’s what racers do. (By the way, I get that Maverick [yes, really…] is a pilot, but is he also a physicist and precog? His ability to predict the upcoming actions of other moving vehicles, driven as they are by panicked humans who might do unexpected things confronted by a fast-moving racecar (like break!), and his ability to give directions, down to the second, should merit consideration for a spinoff superhero film.) Every single time, as I cringed at the thought of the people in that minivan that just crashed into that SUV in the intersection our heroes blew through, I couldn’t help but mockingly chalk it all up to a cool-looking stunt, but a horrifying act of humanity.

It’s all a pretty neat shot of adrenaline if you turn off your morals, larded as it is with incredible stuntwork filmed at startling low camera angles and with crystal clear dashboard cams that put you right in the action almost as much as the astonishing sound design that turns the distant bumblebee buzz of an oncoming sportscar and the roar of a revving engine and the screech of a swerving tire into a stunning symphony of car culture. But, grafted onto a plot that involves a lunkhead’s fairly misguided attempt to reclaim his good name (and by good, we mean “not above drag racing and endangering the lives of others, but most definitely not an angelic-best-friend-murderer!”), all this bravado driving disguised as a “mission” comes off as a fratty, condescending attempt to approximate nobility and gravity in a film that is about the weightlessness – from the laws of nature and of the United States – of driving irresponsibly fast.

Need for Speed, which is the title of both this film – starring Aaron Paul as a talented but broken driver (dead dad, no money, girl he loves shacking up with his old rival) – and the video game franchise on which it is… based, sort of, in that cars go fast, sometimes in races… implies a sort of addiction to adrenaline, velocity, and danger. A potentially unhealthy one. That should maybe be frowned upon a little. There’s a way to embrace drag race culture without including, let alone celebrating, the dehumanizing game mechanic that allows you to run pedestrians off the road and total other cars: at least the racers in the Fast and Furious films, for instance, had the good sense to close off the streets on which they planned to move around each other at foolhardy speeds, and, hell, they had a sideline as smalltime crooks, so they weren’t above some shenanigans.

But the kids in Mt. Kisco, New York, who meet up at what appears to be the only still-thriving drive-in theater in all the world (maybe everyone just really loves Bullit and shows up the night its playing), are a loveable bunch of sociopaths. We know this is true because they razz on each other adorably, stand for small town American values by resenting anyone who moves away to the big city to look for success, and persevere despite being hit hard by the economic recession. Also, included in their ranks is an angel-faced moppet so clearly marked for death by his prophetic vision of a victorious future that my seatmate predicted the entire plot of the movie upon seeing his innocent, virginal face; this kid would never be friends with irresponsible man-children who condescend to women and senselessly endanger everyone around them… We must be in good hands!

Those hands, clenched constantly at the 9 and 3 position on his steering wheel, belong to Aaron Paul, of recent Breaking Bad vintage. Now I never saw Paul’s career-defining role as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, and while I am going into an immediate shame spiral for admitting that, it allows me a certain distance from Paul. Enough of a distance to realize that Paul, barking his way intensely through the role, is all wrong for a movie that also includes as much ham and cheese as Kid Cudi is bringing over from the craft services table. We all agree that Christian Bale’s Batman voice was pretty weird. It’s even weirder coming from a man not wearing a mask, flirting, as he is, through caveman grunts with his Manic Pixie Dream Girl: London Edition.

This is Paul’s way of embodying a tragic past. A classic “wrong man” framed for a crime he didn’t commit, saddled with a dead best friend (killed tragically in the “call to action” moment) and a dead father whom we are told by multiple characters is very important and who has no significance whatsoever, Paul as Toby Marshall is forced into the role of strong, silent type. He’s even called out as such. Everyone around him yammers while Paul drives intensely, emotes in small bursts (“Peeeeete! NOOOOOOO!” Sometimes slow motion is not your friend, directors of the world…), and growls out orders.

This immovable wall is confronted with a British wrecking ball in the form of Imogen Poots’ Julia Maddon, a dealer in exotic cars who resents Toby for his caveman ways, and who, on their journey from New York to California in two days, must fall in love with him while opening him up and making him string his grunts together into semi-sentences. Don’t get me wrong, Poots sells it, mustering as much chemistry as she can with Paul’s clenched teeth, and she’s marginally adorable as she is confronted with every female stereotype in the book (she talks too much, she cares too much about clothes, she can’t drive well), is belittled for embodying them by Toby, subverts them heroically, and then, in the end, is lovingly condescended to for being a girl instead of being actually condescended to. Which is a victory I guess? Right?

Ultimately this movie’s mistake isn’t that it’s all about driving beautiful cars at completely unsafe speeds in awesome ways – those movies exist (hi Dom Toretto!) and they are pretty great, and with a redemptive message to boot! It’s that it’s not enough about driving cars irresponsibly, or rather that it tries to make all that about something else. Something bigger. There’s a point at which Finn (Remi Malek), the member of the group who’s “gone straight” since Toby was put away for two years, throws off the shackles of his suit-and-tie job, reaffirming his commitment to the badass lifestyle he led before by stripping off all his clothes but his socks and kissing an attractive and unwilling female coworker. It’s both a little bit fun and a little bit reprehensible, but there’s a moment where the naked Finn is caught in the elevator with… well she can best be described as a sad cat lady, and they have this exchange:

Cat Lady: I’m in accounting.

Finn: Does it feel like you’re dying inside?

Cat Lady: All the time.

And for a fleeting moment, as Finn makes an utter fool of himself, throwing his hands up in triumph and clarifying that he did all this so he could never return to this stasis, I got it. I got what Need for Speed might be going for. And if it had been a movie about a bunch of fools who do stupid stuff because the alternative – never doing anything at all – is too horrible to think about, that might have been pretty okay. Like a fictional Jackass, with cars. But to ascribe a redemptive arc to the foolishness is… off-putting, because it’s not just their own lives being risked, it’s everyone’s lives. The real issue: this movie ascribes a lot of gravity to one man’s quest to run countless people off the road in order to prove that he didn’t run that one guy off the road… because he would never, they were friends! That was the other jerk with the fast car. The bigger jerk.

DJ Monarch leads the quest to valorize and redeem Toby publicly, in spite of the fact that this man goes to jail twice, once unjustly (sort of) and the other time for reasons that make perfect sense, considering his revenge plan, through which he means to prove his rival committed the original crime, is to commit a number of only marginally smaller crimes (how did he get such short prison sentences by the way?). Monarch, played by Michael Keaton in full-on Beetlejuice mode, is an odd, God-like character who acts as both Greek chorus – praising Toby’s skills and hard-scrabble upbringing before we’ve met him, interjecting with his feelings on Toby’s place in all of this, asking aloud whether it was all worth it once he’s back in custody at the end (implying the obvious answer is chya while saying that racers should race and cops should eat donuts, so, he’s a pretty stand-up guy!) – and deus ex machine – he is an impossibly rich and reclusive racing enthusiast who hosts the De Leon drag race that serves as the film’s climax and has complete control over its attendees. And, I realized, as this middle-aged white male who could no longer get out and experience the real world (due to a heart condition, we learn in a throwaway line) whizzed between computer screens, never leaving his set-up, completely rigged with audio, video and multiple computers; and as he selected the racers and cars that would be living out his fantasy; and as he narrated the race, unable to see what was really happening, only following little dots; as all of this came together and Monarch proselytized about the nobility of Toby’s futile quest to win the race and cleanse his soul, I realized that Monarch was a gamer – or at least this film’s conception of what a gamer looks and acts like. It’s not stretching to say that this man who enthusiastically follows and controls the action, broadcasting out his progress to the world through a series of dots that everyone watches and seems to understand implicitly, is the film’s analog for the kind of man who plays a lot of Need for Speed. It may have even been discussed as the script was being put together: “Hey, this guy is like the guy that’s holding the game controller!”

I guess the film thinks Monarch’s engagement with and encouragement of Toby is benevolent and inspirational, but I just saw him as an immature man who cannot live out his racing dreams anymore forcing his fantasies onto pawns that can enact it for him. My original criticism of the film was going to be that, while it has all the aspects of escapism (fast cars, beautiful people, explosions upon explosions), it cannot serve as escapism because it replaces the blank, plotlessness of true escapism (like a run on a Need for Speed course, where the people are all ones and zeroes) with real emotional situations that make every swerve into oncoming traffic seem destructive for both our characters and the invisible people they are endangering. No one actually died making this film, but in the narrative, we’re supposed to believe they did – if we don’t buy that, than why are we watching the movie? But it made me wonder just how free from blame a game like Need for Speed really is. I’m not someone who’s out for blood when it comes to video game violence, and Need for Speed is extraordinarily tame if we’re going to get into that spectrum of violent games. But what does it say about us that we have supported, for eons in gaming terms, a franchise whose chief appeal to gamers is how it real it makes totaling cars and other roadside objects look? As Monarch licked his chops at the idea of another De Leon like this one, and another and another (because while everyone else is thrown in jail for their complicity in this insanity, Monarch is not), I had to admit: it’s not a good look for us.