Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: Need for Speed

Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.
The machines may have already won - that is, if "Need for Speed" goes on to follow the success of the "Fast and the Furious" and "Transformers" franchises. Moviegoers whose idea of a good time consists of watching large pieces of metal and plastic fly through the air and occasionally slam into other large pieces of metal and plastic might possibly love "Speed," which is - not surprisingly - based on a video game.

What's particularly sad about the film's human element, which takes an obvious backseat to the machinery, is that it includes Aaron Paul's first post "Breaking Bad" appearance and the return of Michael Keaton, who was also featured in last month's ode to clunky pieces of steel, "Robocop."

Yes, perhaps I'm taking this all a bit too seriously. To be fair, "Need for Speed" has more than a few car chases that are well-shot and exciting when they need to be. And despite a script filled with hammy expository dialogue and outright weirdo flights of verbal fancy, you can't completely drown out the screen presence of actors (Paul, Keaton, etc.) with loads of it to spare.

The picture follows the story of Tobey Marshall, a small town street racing god and mechanic who gets sent to prison after an arrogant former pal and now professional racer (Dominic Cooper) challenges him to a race that leaves the brother of an ex-girlfriend in the morgue. Cooper's Dino Brewster, however, gets off scot-free.

Marshall gets out of the pen two years later, determined to prove his innocence and Brewster's guilt as well as defeat Dino in an illegal race held once every year by a mysterious man named Monarch (Keaton), who acts as some sort of delirious Greek chorus to the action. Thrown into the mix are several mechanics who once worked at Marshall's garage as well as a young British woman (Imogen Poots), who acts as the love interest.

Tobey and the gang must make a two-day trek - at top speeds, of course - from New York to California, where the race will be held. What basically follows is one absurdly ridiculous sequence after another. My favorite is a scene during which Marshall's pals drive alongside his car in a gasoline truck and attempt to fill up his car at 100 miles per hour. At least two characters are required to hang off their respective vehicles to fill up the car, risking their lives. The obvious question: Why not just pull over for five minutes?

Paul gives the material his best, bringing some level of characterization to the underwritten Marshall. He's a great actor when given the right material, so let's hope his next project will give him more to chew on, a la "Breaking Bad."

And it's great to see Keaton back in action - but, good Lord, can we please find him something better to do than this? His character spends the entirety of the film facing the camera, narrating the film's action as if it were that complex and needed further commentary (the whole thing reminded me of the Andy Cohen show that follows the "Housewives" programs. And, yes, I've seen the "Real Housewives"). Keaton is forced to gesticulate, shout, rhyme - yes, rhyme - and make bad puns. His scenes bring the action to a complete halt. On the other hand, while they may be unnecessary and strangely out of place, these scenes at least bring a little personality to an action movie otherwise filled to the brim with cliches.

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