In Defense of 'Need For Speed,' More Or Less

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NEED FOR SPEED
Disney

I saw "Need for Speed" about a month ago. I mention this because I've already put way too much thought into this movie. The reviews have been pretty unkind to "Need For Speed" and, admittedly, while watching the film I rolled my eyes quite a few times. But since that viewing, a certain imperfectly understood something about this movie kept nagging at my brain. Those thoughts were immediately followed by: Why do I keep thinking about this dumb movie!?

And then I ran across "Smokey and the Bandit" on television and everything made sense.

In his curmudgeonly review of "Need for Speed," Jordan Hoffman points out that, "Much of the movie's run time, actually, is just Tobey getting to the race."

While this is true, it is also by far the best aspect of the movie.

The aforementioned Tobey Marshall, portrayed by Aaron Paul, is our "Need for Speed" hero. Tobey owns a small garage and street races at night to help pay the mortgage. Then an old adversary named Snidely Racefast (which may or may not be the actual name of the character played by Dominic Cooper) shows up to offer Tobey and his buddies a lot of money to help build a Shelby Mustang.

Yes, the first 45 minutes are asinine. The movie starts as a rip-off of the "Fast and Furious" movies -- only with the addition of a zooming camera and the subtraction of "fun to watch" -- before it branches out into some lame-brain subplot involving the death of one of Tobey's friends after a high-speed accident caused by Snidely Racefast. (The character who dies might as well have been wearing a red Starfleet uniform. His character name should have been "Mitch Dead.")

But at that point something interesting happens. In a kind of convoluted plot twist that involves significant jail time for Tobey and a secret car race, he finds himself with a short amount of time to get a Shelby Mustang GT and its owner, Julia (Imogen Poots), from New York to San Francisco. All of a sudden, "Need for Speed" transforms into a cross-country race against time, with the police in hot pursuit.

This is awfully similar to getting a truckload of Coors from Texas to Georgia.

Okay, yes, "Smokey and the Bandit" is kind of a dumb movie, but it's not without its charms: the use of America's wide-open interstate highway system makes it immensely entertaining (not to mention Burt Reynolds in his prime). When "Need for Speed's" cross-country action kicks in, it triggered a sense of nostalgia for this genre of movie that I didn't know existed.

That nostalgia also kind of a problem for "Need for Speed," because its target audience doesn't really exist anymore: namely, adolescent boys in the late 1970s, preferably who have posters of dirt bikes on their bedroom walls. If this movie had been released a few decades ago, it would have played well as a poor man's "Smokey" with some cooler car crashes. (All of the car stunts are real, which also plays into those feelings of nostalgia.) All that's missing is a catchy Jerry Reed song.

But the movie makes such a big deal about this stupid race, one can't blame the audience for thinking the movie is about the race instead about getting to the race, which is it's really about. ("Need for Speed" also has a similarities to, of all things, "National Lampoon's Vacation." If the viewer is under the impression that the only thing that matters is Wally World, yeah, it's going to be frustrating that the Griswolds keep stopping along the way. Also, both movies have an elaborate car jump scene.)

"Need for Speed" should have just gone "all in" on the cross-country/nostalgia concept and done away with the nonsense that bookends this movie. I mean, the movie is all nonsense, but at least the race against time is fun. "Need for Speed" is trying to cloak itself in the noise and flash of "Fast and Furious" when it should have just owned its inner Bo "Bandit" Darville. Instead, it's just pissed everyone off.

The reviews have been pretty unforgiving, but it seems a little unfair to admonish a movie like "Need for Speed" when we look back at "Smokey and the Bandit" so fondly. Ultimately it's the movie's own fault for not being upfront about what it is: a throwback to the days of Burt Reynolds and Sally Field driving a cool car trying to outrun police officers.

Earlier this week, I was debating the merits of "Need for Speed" vs. "Smokey and the Bandit" and "The Cannonball Run" with the aforementioned Hoffman, who asked at one point, "Did those other films have such a blatant disregard for safety and public works?"

In response, I emailed him back a YouTube video of The Bandit racing through a roller coaster, inevitably resulting in its destruction. (And yes, historians, I'm aware that particular scene takes place in "Smokey and the Bandit Part II.") But that's the problem with "Need for Speed" -- the audience for this movie has left this genre in the dust. When "Smokey and the Bandit" came out, we all wanted to be Burt Reynolds; in 2014, we'd rather see his character get a ticket.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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