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Every once in a while a movie comes along that surprises me.
Looking at the trailers for “Need for Speed,” the new street-racing film based on the wildly popular video game series, I expected it to follow the formula of cheesy, slightly sleazy, guy films of the past. Add together a little axle grease, a little bikini and a lot of machismo, and voila: you get “Fast and Furious 17 ½” or “Smokey and the Bandit, Part 7.”
I have been reporting for years, however, that Hollywood has been transitioning away from the usual R-rated gutter films, cleaning up its act and deliberately targeting a more family-oriented audience – if for no other reason than because the box office statistics prove the raunchier a movie, the less it makes. And losing money is kind of a big deal in Hollywood, almost as big a deal as making it.
And yet, I was still surprised to see the makers of “Need for Speed” steer away from some of the usual potholes with their film and deliver instead a comparatively clean, positive-message movie that I might even end up recommending.
Now, to be clear, there’s not much commendable in “Need for Speed” by way of artistic merit. The plot is paper-thin, the script pedestrian at best and the acting is endearing but unremarkable (though I will say Michael Keaton was delightful as the enigmatic character “Monarch”). This is a movie based on a video game, and it has little more meat on its bones than its source material.
But that’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. The sleek, muscular and exotic cars, revving engines, lighthearted, masculine banter and non-stop, heart-pumping racing action is frankly a lot of fun. Watching the movie is a lot like playing a video game – a brief, adrenaline-laced diversion … and not much more.
The storyline of the film, as thin as it is, was also a pleasant surprise, as its message takes a turn away from the typical.
For much of the movie, it seems as if the main character, Tobey Marshall, is simply fueled by revenge, wanting to get back at rival Dino Brewster for fleeing an accident scene and leaving Marshall alone to serve jail time for the death of his pal.
But when the rubber hits the road (and yes, I’m cramming every driving pun into this column I possibly can), Marshall is forced to choose between the routes of revenge or honor, and the movie’s final message proves quite a bit more redemptive than I had expected from the trailers.
It’s almost enough to make me recommend the film.
To be certain, there are some notes of caution. The story is based on the lawless and dangerous pursuit of street racing. It’s often unrealistic. Young folks inclined to imitate the racing antics had also best learn from the film’s characters – most of whom wind up hospitalized, dead or in jail by the film’s conclusion. And there’s still some content warnings (see more details below).
I’ll also throw up a caution flag about how the film treats police officers, which is nearly as condescending as the old “Cannonball Run” films, as evidenced by a character’s humorous line at a key juncture in the film, “Racers should race; cops should eat doughnuts.”
But if the audience is discerning enough to understand this movie is just entertainment fluff and doesn’t belong in reality any more than the video game of the same name, “Need for Speed” is an exciting joyride worth spending a few quarters on.
- “Need for Speed” is rated PG-13 in large part because of its intense racing action, but also because of some language, including roughly 40 obscenities and profanities. The “F-word,” however, is notably absent.
- The film has some sexual innuendos and humor, a kiss and a few (remarkably few, given the genre) scenes with ladies in revealing outfits. There is also an extended, comical scene where a man strips naked on his way out of an office building, shocking his fellow coworkers along the way. Full, rear, male nudity is seen a couple times during the sequence.
- The film includes plenty of racing action, violence and car crashes. Some crashes are sudden and startling, others stylized, still others traumatic and clearly fatal. There’s also a delivered punch and some foot-chase scenes.
- “Need for Speed” contains very few religious or occult references, limited to a cross at the “Trucker’s Chapel,” some nebulous words of comfort from a preacher at a funeral (I didn’t recognize the Bible translation he was using, if it was biblical at all) and the line, “Godspeed, boys. Godspeed.”