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Think adapting War and Peace is hard? Try adapting the race-car video game Need for Speed. Tolstoy's 1,225-page behemoth has nothing on the Electronic Arts franchise's irreconcilably complicated twenty-year, twenty-installment history: Sometimes cars are subject to physics; sometimes they aren't. Sometimes they're invulnerable; sometimes they break. Maybe you're in London; maybe you're in the fictional Olympic City. You could have free will to roam; you could be stuck on a track. You could be a car or a human, an outlaw or a cop. With so many alternate realities to please, it's no wonder Scott Waugh's moronic flick has multiple personalities.
Inspired by the first Fast and the Furious film, itself half video game, 2003's Need for Speed: Underground introduced the concept of plot to the series. (Sort of. Wikipedia sums it up as "Time passes, races are won.") Now, the $4 billion-earning video game wants to become its own movie, a cash-bleeding act of hubris akin to a rock star launching his own restaurant chain.
Like porn, another art form where characters are blank audience surrogates, the video-game version of Need for Speed emphasized action over individuality. The hero was merely called The Player. Now Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) steps into the void. He's at least given a name, Tobey Marshall, but not much else. He's silent, stoic, and boring as hell.
Tobey hails from Mount Kisco, New York, a motor-mad hamlet where he and his broke buddies (Kid Cudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) rebuild cars at a struggling garage so decked out in Americana you expect a waitress to roller-skate out with a tray of milkshakes. At night the entire town heads to the drive-in to watch Steve McQueen's Bullitt before powering up some CIA-level spy gear for dangerous drag races through the apocalypse-empty streets. During race one, they almost kill a homeless man. Whatevs, bro. During race two — a daytime dare against black-leather-clad baddie Dino (Dominic Cooper) — Tobey drives the wrong way on a highway, causes several bystander wrecks, and watches his friend's car flip over twelve times, tumble over a bridge and burst into flames.
Dino denies he was there. Tobey is imprisoned for manslaughter. Good. Not to be a killjoy, but if filmmakers are going to embed pixel mayhem in the photo-real world, then they're inviting us to ask if this shit is sociopathic. Especially when you use real cars and real wrecks and layer this nonsense with a weepy score that sounds like it belongs in a drama about a dog with cancer. Regardless, we're meant to root for Tobey to avenge his sidekick's death by doing even more of what got him killed. Everyone acts as though they've been huffing diesel fumes. Tobey's friends wear red to the kid's funeral, get engaged to his killer, wander naked though office buildings and steal Apache helicopters.
Two Emmys aside, it's tough to be Aaron Paul. So far, he's proven himself talented at playing one specific character, an antic man-child who bleeds his soul on the screen. He's trying to prove his range, which in the Era of Gosling means frowning, crinkling his eyebrows and glaring over his shoulder. The bigger waste is ingenue Imogen Poots as The Babe Who Likes Cars. She's daffy and charming in a part that's further beneath her than skid marks on pavement.
At least Need for Speed is the rare case where the press notes tell the truth. Allow me to quote: "When EA first began thinking about the possibility of bringing their iconic video game to the big screen, they decided to take a proactive approach and not wait for the right script."
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