Thursday, March 13, 2014

'Need for Speed' (2014) directed by Scott Waugh

Cars are boring, complicated and dangerous death-machines. But on screen they become something more. The automobile and cinema have grown up alongside each other, and when a little petrol gets mixed in with your celluloid the results are often thrilling. I'm thinking of the classics, Bullitt, Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point or modern greats like Drive and Rush  - lean and muscular cinema made by people with oil-stained fingers. Need for Speed wants to hearken back to this golden age; ditching the CG of the Fast and the Furious series and showing us real cars rumbling around real cities, driven by real people. 

So there's a good, working class car driver and an evil rich car driver.  The evil car driver cheats, kills the good car driver's friend and then frames him.  Now that he's out of prison the good car driver must avenge this crime the only way he knows how: by driving cars.  This is less a story and more an excuse to have a lot of driving.  It's to the film's credit that most of the film's run-time is spent behind the wheel, as we watch the drivers race to the race, then race the race.

The lead of a car film shares many traits with the kung-fu hero; both are in possession of an innate talent that needs to be honed through discipline and trials.  Essentially, to win the big race/fight the big baddie the hero must prove their worth by overcoming their self-doubt. This is standard Campbellian stuff but the car genre has it's unique wrinkles; some of which Need for Speed 'gets' and some it blithely ignores.

They picked the weirdest press promo stills for this film. Here's a blue car I guess.
Prime among these is a straight up spiritual connection between man and machine. A car movie hero is only complete when sitting behind the wheel of his car - which becomes an extension of his mind and body. While he's sat in that driver's seat, the boundaries of the character extend outwards to the hubcaps and bumper.  As his heart beats, so the engine throbs, the deep bass boom of his engine (the hero always has the coolest sounding engine) signifying the car hero's spiritual superiority over his rivals.  Ideally he will have built the car himself and we'll have seen him slathered in swarfega as if he's just delivered a bouncing automotive baby.

On paper Need for Speed does this.  The hero is well-regarded as a top mechanic; though we only briefly see him working on a car - and notably not his car.  The hero car of the film is a modified blue and white sports car of some kind (I think it's referred to as a 'mustang') that's enormously fetishised by all that encounter it. It's this car that the hero seems to have some kind of spiritual connection with; able to make it reach speeds and execute maneuvers that no other driver can.  But we never actually see him build it, the film squandering the chance for that crucial montage in a disarming cut from car as chassis to gleaming and finished end product.

Despite this early missed opportunity the relationship between man and car does develop as they rocket across the USA on their way the big race.  Both car and man get a few dings, prove their mettle in tough scrapes and get nicely grimed up - then just as the car has developed a personality and bonded to its driver it's unceremoniously disposed of!  In the last race the hero doesn't only drive a new car - he drives the villain's car!

Another great still from the press kit.  I can't even tell what colour this car is.
Dammit Need for Speed, this isn't how the genre works.  You can't just plop the hero in a car coded as murderously evil and expect us to get emotionally invested in this final race.  It's like Luke Skywalker showing up for the big Death Star brou-ha-ha in a TIE Fighter!  It's like Batman infiltrating the Joker's hideout while dressed as a clown!  It's like James Bond spending an entire film stroking a white fluffy cat!  It's just not on!

All that said, it's doubtful that Need for Speed could ever have worked with Aaron Paul cast as the lead. He's just awful; looking disarmingly like Dec from Ant and Dec and speaking in the kind of deep 'gargles with gravel' voice that you usually only hear from people trying to take the piss out of action heroes.  Though he's obviously worked out quite a bit for the role, he doesn't have a chin at all.  Given that by necessity the car hero will be shot in profile from the passenger's seat, this is a critical flaw.  The pinnacle of this catastrophe is the scene where he sees his friend in a burning wreck; Paul marching into straight into Pythonesque over-acting, yelling "Nooooooo!" over and over again.  I think at one point he may even have sunk to his knees and waved his fist at the sky!  

Nobody really comes out this smelling of roses, though Imogen Poots at least seems to recognise this dialogue as utterly ridiculous.  Michael Keaton, who it's always nice to see,  even in trash like this, comes out similarly unscathed - though largely because his character never interacts with anyone and is confined to one room.  

I guess there's some worth in the car action, at bare minimum there's a palpable physical sensation of motion and speed - but without the emotional and spiritual underpinning that's critical for a successful car film it's all so much antiseptic. If you're into this stuff you may as well just watch Top Gear or something, or preferably a better, purer and more sincere car movie.


Need for Speed is on general release now.

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