Could Spielberg brag about ‘Need for Speed’?

By Gary Clift

Poor Steven Spielberg. He’s running the Dreamworks movie studio’s live-action unit, or so one reads.

They don’t make very many movies, so each new one is very important to the company’s financial health.

Anyone who watches “Need for Speed,” their most recent release, will acknowledge that the outfit put money and thought into the film, and that it should make them some money.

But is newbie director Scott Waugh’s“Need for Speed” the kind of project Spielberg can brag about? After all, what is it? A movie with the plot sophistication of one of the “Step Up” pictures. A new “Smokey and the Bandit,” except with “Fast and Furious” style road racing. Something that features Michael Keaton as a crazed illegal race promoter who also runs an internet call-in show.

How derivative and romantic do you want to go to sell movie tickets?

Here’s the film’s ridiculous story: A mechanic named Marshall (Aaron Paul) has a good crew working for him and has success as a local racing illegally in his vintage GTO. But he is broke and has lost his girl to rich rival racer Dino (Domenic Cooper).

So he contracts to complete the refurbishment of the last real Shelby Mustang, a car Dino owns. After they sell it to a millionaire represented by a young English woman named Julia, Dino produces three different colored but otherwise identical cars. He will race Marshall and Marshall’s sidekick Pete, the girlfriend’s brother. The winner gets all the money from the Mustang sale.

Given the other traffic on the roads and the cops and so on, this is a fairly hairy race. But Marshall is going to win when evil villain Dino nudges Pete’s car, causing it to jump into the air and crash, burning. Then M goes back to try to save the kid, but Dino drives on, later hiding his car. M is convicted of road racing and of causing the wreck. He goes to jail for two years.

When he gets out, he has a plan to get revenge. Viewers may not understand how beating Dino in another race will be fitting pay-back, but the movie insists. The race is another illegal one, sponsored by a retired driver named Monarch, a guy who has a webcast call-in show about the state of illegal road racing throughout the country. Remember how the “Step Up” movies implied that the country was split up into different regions of break-dancing “crew” competitions?

The owner of the Mustang agrees to let Marshall the felon drive it in Monarch’s San Francisco area race. But Marshall will first have to drive the car from the east to the bay area in two days, and he’ll have to take Julia along with him. Our hero’s old collaborating mechanics are along to help out, two in a truck and one in a series of borrowed aircraft.

Breaking parole, Marshall drives first to Detroit to taunt Dino momentarily. Then to Nebraska, for reasons I didn’t get. And then west. Dino puts out the word that he will pay for anyone who keeps Marshall from reaching the starting line, and this makes for a couple of amusing if completely unbelievable ambush avoidances, one involving the Mustang being hoisted into the air by an army helicopter just as Marshall drives it over a cliff. That’s the sort of movie this is.

Marshall arrives in the city of the golden gate. Then his $3,000,000 car is smashed by one of Dino’s minions. Julia is rushed to the hospital. Who will step forward to offer our hero what car to use in tomorrow’s big race?

The driving scenes work pretty well here. It is lucky they take up so much of the film, because whenever Marshall isn’t driving, we become aware of how silly the story is. And then there’s Julia. Having discovered how winning Imogen Poots can be when she starred in Dreamworks’ recent and laudable re-make of “Fright Night,” the studio has cast her in the female lead. Goofy-looking though she may be, when Poots is on screen, she becomes the focus of attention.

The film was edited well. It is full and big as well as quick. It is sort of fun to watch. But in the back of one’s mind, one is always aware how unreal and inconsequential it is. And then, consider this: if Dreamworks makes a lot of money on a film like this, are they going to reinvest it making first class films? I’m not sure their recent releases suggest they have that vision of their business.

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