MOVIE REVIEW: Need For Speed
March 27, 2014
Since 1994, the "Need for Speed" video game has had 20 different incarnations and racing adventures and is a multi-generational at-home thrill ride worldwide. Given its popularity and commercial success, it was only a matter of time before "Need for Speed" the game would become NEED FOR SPEED the movie. And for this big screen adaptation, the perfect triumvirate of filmmakers come together - director Scott Waugh, stunt coordinator Lance Gilbert and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut - to deliver a mind blowing high octane thrill ride like we've never seen on screen before.
Between Waugh's direction, Hurlbut's Oscar-worthy cinematography and Gilbert's stunt coordination and design - not to mention the work of every stunt legend and legendary stunt family working today (Picerni, Baxley, Kingi, Epper Gilbert, just to name a few), plus a solid story and powerful emotional and engaging performances all around, all I can say is NEED FOR SPEED is mind boggling exhilaration!!!!
Given that there was no narrative with the video games, translation to the big screen was a blank canvas for Waugh and screenwriters George and John Gatins. No strangers themselves to the automotive world, George and John Gatins themselves own a classic car shop in Van Nuys, California, specializing in classic car restoration. Needless to say, their intimate knowledge of cars and the racing world, just adds to the authenticity and practical stunt experience. The result is throwback to fast cars an fast films of the 60's and 70's where family, friends and loyalty matter; where everyone knows everyone else; where the big excitement in a small town is nightly drag racing in the underground street circuit with food and drinks at the local drive-in to crown the winners. Welcome to Mt. Kisco, New York and Tobey Marshall.
Tobey's dad was an automotive legend. He could build and rebuild any car - particularly race cars. And with Mt. Kisco being what it is, Tobey followed in his dad's business together with his best friends, Little Pete, Benny, Finn and Joe. Blood brothers wouldn't be any closer than this group. Each with their own automotive and technological talent, it is their dream to leave Mt. Kisco and hit the NASCAR circuit like local bad boy Dino Brewster. Brewster hasn't looked back since leaving town except to stop by every now and then to thumb his nose at everyone and taunt Tobey over not only his racing success, but on stealing Tobey's girlfriend and Pete's sister, Anita.
Unfortunately, business hasn't been too good for Marshall Motors Automotive and Tobey will lose it to foreclosure if he can't come up with the cash to save it. But Dino has an offer. He owns the unfinished Ford Mustang that was being customized by Carroll Shelby at the time of his death. Dino wants it finished and wants Tobey and the boys to finish it. Expected sale price of the car will be at least $1 million and Dino will cut Tobey in for a quarter.
Dino being who Dino is, Tobey should know better than to trust him but goes ahead with the deal. Sadly, things post-sale get out of control and Little Pete is killed during a road race with Dino and Tobey. Dino disappears, Tobey takes the rap and serves two years in prison. On his release, revenge is the watchword of the day and Tobey knows just how to get it. Enter the underground race called the DeLeon. Organized via the internet by a mysterious racing fanatic called "Monarch", the race is invitation only and only for those with super-charged European race cars or suped-up classics. The winner gets the pink slip of the losers' cars.
Calling on his old Marshall Motors boys, and with more than a little help from an all-knowing car enthusiast and private sales agent for super cars named Julia, Tobey and gang steal the Shelby they once restored and set out on a cross country trek to not only capture the attention of Monarch and get an invite to DeLeon, but win it all.
When it came to casting, especially the role of Tobey, director Waugh had one thing in mind; he "wanted to find the next young Steve McQueen. Steve harnessed three things that were very important - danger, charisma and likeability." Hard to find in three individuals let alone one, Waugh knew he found his man with Aaron Paul. Although Paul was an obvious choice for the role of Dino, Waugh knew he was the more interesting choice for Tobey. " That defines the movie we're making. [Aaron's] a unique, interesting person." As Tobey, Paul is magical. He truly is the 21st century embodiment of Steve McQueen. Paul delivers an earnestness and authenticity that is palpable, likeable and engaging. His intensity, along with the stunts/ racing sequences and lensing by Hurlbut, put us in the driver's seat with him. And at the same time, Paul has a vulnerability and moral compass that gives emotional texture to Tobey.
As Dino, Dominic Cooper is perfectly cast as the bad boy. Slick with attitude and swagger, Cooper brings an arrogant rage to Dino that works perfectly in the story dynamic and rivalry. Described by Waugh as "a wonderful talent", Imogen Poots similarly has a depth that makes Julia indispensable in Tobey's world, providing a confident, yet thrill seeking and sense of wide-eyed wonder that resonates with an audience.
Outrageous fun comes in the form of Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek and Scott Mescudi who, as Joe, Finn and Benny respectively provide not only all the on-screen mechanical support and comaraderie for Paul's Tobey but add levels of inherent humor with their collective chemistry. Mescudi is a particular stand-out as the smart-ass Army reserve pilot who always seems to acquire much needed air support to provide "eyes in the sky" on Tobey's cross-country journey. And yes, just like everyone went to driving school, Mescudi also went to flight school and is actually flying some of the planes we see on screen.
Scene-stealing is an over-the-top Jack Nicholson-esque Michael Keaton who mesmerizes with insanity as Monarch. Genius performance and caricature.
But NEED FOR SPEED is all about just that - speed - and that means good old-fashioned car stunts and racing. For that, no one is better than Scott Waugh and his stunt coordinator Lance Gilbert. Waugh and Gilbert are stunt royalty in the film industry. Second generation, their fathers Fred Waugh and Mickey Gilbert, are legends. "'They were the real cowboys' and they were hard core stuntmen. . .[they] were the real deal. The stuff that they did, they were getting really wrecked and hurt and doing things that were really pushing the envelope." It is this world that carved Scott and Lance and shaped them as stuntmen, stunt coordinators and in Waugh's case, a director.
Waugh is not a director who believes in CG. He goes "old school" every time believing that "in a car movie, it should be all practical, it should be all real. And we can hire guys like Lance to come up with stuff that's real that we can do practically. I just felt like when we conceived this film, I really wanted to do a throwback to the movies that Lance and I grew up on that were the ones we still quote today as the greatest car movies of all time. Which is 'Bullitt'. Which is 'Vanishing Point'. Which is 'Smokey & The Bandit', 'The French Connection.' . . .Why are they still the best? . . .The number 1 real is, it's all real. It's the 60's, the 70's, you didn't do CG. You go and you look and there's no big music montage. It's just motor noise and it's cars. And it's great. It's something that we really focused on throughout the whole film." Key for both Waugh and Gilbert is that "a car can do what we see it do in the film."
Opting for the 60's muscle cars and the European super cars instantly recognizable to fans of fast cars and the video game, the hero car was none other than the 2013 Shelby GT500 - the 50th anniversary edition of the 1965 Ford Mustang Shelby. Seven cars were built for the film. Also showcased is the '69 ford Gran Torino, '68 Chevy Camaro and '66 Pontiac GTO. When it came to European super cars, manufacturers provided CAD files on each car so that they could be built and customized for the stunts. Swedish Koenigsegg Agera R, Lamborghini Elemento, GTA Spano, Bugatti and McLaren P1 are some of the cars used in NEED FOR SPEED.
But with fast cars and high intensity old school stunts comes a need for talented and skilled stuntmen and drivers. With Lance Gilbert as stunt coordinator, not only did he call on the old school stuntmen working today, but also high performance race drivers like Steve Holladay. Even the actors themselves were driving in excess of 100 mph although aerial car flips and crashes were left to the professionals.
One death-defying stunt bears stand alone mention and be on the lookout for it. "The Grasshopper" is legendary. The first people - and perhaps two of the only people to do it until now - were Fred Waugh and Mickey Gilbert in "Our Winning Season". And the younger Waugh and Gilbert knew it had to be included in NEED FOR SPEED as homage to their dads. Planning and executing "The Grasshopper" was a Herculean effort. According to Waugh, "These are the things I said to Lance. It's got to be practical. It's got to be real. And we're gonna really jump it and he needs to drive away. That was my constituent. He can't land and grenade the car. It's in the middle of the movie. He's got to land and drive away."
According to Gilbert, "We had to find the spot that actually told the story too. How [Tobey] gets away. . . [Scott] likes to reverse engineer his action beats and go to a location and try to find the locations that work best for telling the story and also being able to create good action. We were in Detroit and we were driving around and we were finding some ridiculous locations. . . Ultimately we found this other place and it was just a perfect lead into a trap of being able to evade and get away from the police and going up that grassy knoll and jumping across those three lanes of traffic into that park system. It was a pretty critical area because the park itself was littered with trees and all of that. But we found a path that was big enough, wide enough and long enough to fit our criteria that we were looking for. We had to go in and modify the landing zone a little bit to make it a nicer downhill transition to ease on the car. Then we built the car and modified the car to be able to handle the landing. Then we went and tested it. Knew we had it. Knew what speeds we were gonna go do. Then it was just a matter of waiting for our ticket to get punched to go to Detroit to actually film it. We went there and did it."
With NEED FOR SPEED, everytime someone puts the pedal to the metal, everytime someone gets in a car, everytime a car crashes or rolls, we are there. Your heart leaps. Your heart stops. In all my years, and some of them spent actually working second unit with these stunt guys (including Fred Waugh and Mickey Gilbert), I have never seen an old school practical effects car film as exhilarating and immersive as this. Last year's "Getaway" was thrilling with its use of practical car stunts, and of course, it was designed by Charles Picerni who is one of the stunt drivers in NEED FOR SPEED, but as it was designed primarily with one car and not a cross country adventure and race, there was less action. But not here. And credit for much of this immersive experience goes to cinematographer Shane Hurlbut who dazzles us with his lensing. As emotional and beautiful as some of the quieter and introspective moments of the film area, equally lush is his lensing of America as the film travels across some of the most beautiful locations in the country. Hurlbut's lens showcases it all. But nothing is as impressive as his action lensing. With cinematographers David B. Nowell and Michael Kelem handling aerial imagery (of which there is plenty), Hurlbut and Waugh stay on the ground.
Shooting with 27 cameras and shooting full driving/action sequences as opposed to cut and paste, there is a fluidity that flows with the cars, with the action, never interrupted except by a palpable sensory experience of rear-ending vehicles or some slightly rough vehicle landings after a jump. Angles are varied and capture the emotional beats as well as the action. Key to the lensing of NEED FOR SPEED is technology/hardware created by Hurlbut and Waugh in the form of a new camera car. According to Waugh, "We needed to build a faster camera car because most camera cars tap out at 110-120 mph. We were gonna travel way faster than that. We ended up building a super-charged Mustang that was the car that we could keep up with the super cars. We built these crazy rail systems on the front and rear that would give us mobility with the camera. Normally at those speeds you just hard mount the camera to the front. But we wanted to have a head that you can put out there and pan back and forth and slide the camera back and forth between cars. Our high speed Mustang was our little assault weapon. . . that was the secret toy that really showed us how fast we were really going."
Let the checkered flag wave for NEED FOR SPEED as it crosses the finish line first with fast cars, phenomenal practical stunts, superb lensing, a story with heart and a superstar in Aaron Paul.
Directed by Scott Waugh
Written by John and George Gatins
Stunt Coordinator: Lance Gilbert
Cast: Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Michael Keaton