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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Need for Speed

NEED FOR SPEED (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Scott Waugh, 2013

Need for Speed — a movie based on a popular video game about outlaw street and highway racing  — is a big, bad, flashy, terminally dopey muscle car of a movie which tries to be a Fast and Furious-style actioner and ends up being Rushed and Ridiculous instead. Not that I’m filing any briefs for the Fast and the Furious movie franchise, an overwrought high-octane saga in which scowling, fiercely intent super-drivers — including Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker (who died last year in a real-life  auto accident) — whiz and careen and roar past each other in unlikely and dangerous racing locales and outrageous CGI-enhanced stunts. Smash hit as it may be, that is a movie series which has given me no pleasure at all despite its vast expenditures of cash, blistering road action, and apparently well-satisfied audiences.

Actually, Need for Speed has better action scenes than the Fast and Furious movies. It’s done with real cars, real stunts and real drivers, instead of the digital make-believe of much of the older series — and the director-co-editor-executive producer is Scott Waugh (also the director of the war movie Act of Valor), an ex-stunt man with a flair for this crash-bang stuff.

But the story is something else again. It’s so wildly illogical (even on its own terms) and packed with so many ludicrous clichés that you can barely watch the damned thing without feeling like a sucker. Or without wanting to see some maniac, maybe Johnny Knoxville as the Bad Grandpa, ram another muscle car though the screen.

Need for Speed stars Aaron Paul (of TVs Breaking Bad) as the one-time pride of Mt. Kisco, New York, an auto mechanic, frequent smirker and ace racer named Tobey Marshall, who gets framed for manslaughter (of his best friend) while driving. Tobey comes out of prison, and gets pulled back to his old buddies at his bankrupt dad’s shop, Marshall Motors –s eager for revenge against the real killer, Dominic Cooper as fellow Mt. Kisco native and evil NASCAR driver Dino Brewster. Dino not only challenged Tobey in drag races, but he stole Tobey’s girlfriend Anita (Dakota Jackson), killed his best friend, Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), and tried to swindle Tobey out of the same muscle car supreme , the classic Ford Mustang, that he’d first hired Tobey to renovate, back near the beginning of the movie.

When we first see these two — plus Anita and Tobey’s garage gang buds Little Pete, Finn (Rami Malek), Joe (Ramon Rodriguez) and Benny (Scott Mescudi), they’re hanging around the local drive-in theatre, having coincidentally strolled in just as the projectionist started showing the car-chase scene from Peter YatesSteve McQueen cop thriller, Bullitt. (No Jackie Bisset?)

Soon they’re all involved in a Rebel Without a Cause drag race, and eventually Tobey is hires by Dino and introduced to the car-crazy beauty Julia Madden (Imogen Poots, who has a radiant ‘60s fab-bird grin to match Tobey’s smirk) and then gets framed for  the fatal end-over-end crash that killed Little Pete, and that Dino really caused. Two years later, when Tobey gets out of prison — after numerous witnesses are apparently unable to remember what happened — he hooks up with Benny and the others, and then becomes embroiled in an outlaw car race, the DeLeon, run by the frantic padrone, The Monarch (Michael Keaton), who not only broadcasts the race, but narrates the cross-country chase from New York to San Francisco, by way of Detroit, that Tobey undertakes (accompanied by Julia, at the insistence of her father), to get there.

As all this high-speed drivel continues, strange and senseless things keep happening. Dino hires hit men to kill Tobey, but they mess up. Cops fail to catch them. Benny keeps stealing helicopters to guide Tobey’s journey, and, at one point, helps him elude several cop cars by dangling the mustang above a canyon. The Monarch blathers away like a shock-jock deejay on a tear. And Finn, the mechanic who also works in an Office-like office, when summoned by Tobey, walks out of work with a silly grin, while taking off all his clothes, for no reason I could see, unless he was trying to audition for some other movie.

But enough of trying (or not trying) to make sense out of Need for Speed, which is like trying to make apple pie out of sawdust.  Despite the script, there are  two engaging performances in the movie: Keaton’s as the motormouth Monarch, and Poots as the radiant Julia. The car race scenes, though pretty good  would be better with a better story. Otherwise, the movie zips along,  almost defiantly absurd, dragging us from one inanity to another..

Need for Speed suggests that speed is an addiction — and maybe movies about high-speed car races and chases are an addiction too. But I’d hate to overdose on something as loud and pointless as this. Just because a movie’s target audience favors action over character and speed over sense, and just because the source of the plot was a video game, doesn’t mean the story has to be as dopey as the one in Need for Speed.  But then, if you keep making dopey movies — even if you make them well — eventually, part of the audience may forget what good ones are like. By the way, it was nice to see an actual functioning drive-in theatre again — especially when it was showing a movie, Bullitt, that, however “old-fashioned” its car chases may have been,  was about five times better than Need for Speed.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon