The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Bad Movies for Bad People

Posted on | July 10, 2023 | Comments Off on Bad Movies for Bad People

Aaron Paul in ‘Need for Speed’

We’ve got a long layover before the next leg of our flight back home from Alaska, which gives me an opportunity to explain what was wrong with the lousy in-flight movie on the way here from Anchorage. What was wrong with Need for Speed (2014) can be summarized succinctly — everything. It stars Aaron Paul, whom you most likely would recognize as Jesse, the young meth addict who served as Walter White’s accomplice in the popular AMC series Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

We flew here on Big Country airline, which has updated its delivery of in-flight movies so that you log onto an internal server with your phone or other device, and then have access to a variety of entertainments. With a five-hour flight, my first choice was the three-hour-long 2001 Michael Bay-directed Pearl Harbor. I recall seeing that when it was out in theaters, but for some reason it didn’t annoy me nearly as much then as I did rewatching it on the plane. If you think that the output of Hollywood only recently began to suck because of “wokeness,” you really need to take a critical look at Pearl Harbor. But why even bother slagging that movie, when Need for Speed so much more obviously deserves slagging?

“Why is this guy the hero?” That’s the question that began to bother me more and more as the movie went on. Perhaps I didn’t pay close enough attention to the setup in the opening scenes, but the movie is about illegal street racing, so the question occurred to me, why is the criminal Tobey Marshall, played by Aaron Paul, the hero, while “Dominic Cooper as Dino Brewster: a former Indy racer and Tobey’s fierce rival” (to quote Wikipedia) is the villain? The moral distinction between the two is not obvious, except that Tobey is a blue-collar hard-luck case, whereas Dino is apparently wealthy and well-connected. Quoting Wikipedia again:

Tobey Marshall is a former race car driver who owns his late father’s garage, Marshall Performance Motors, in Mount Kisco, New York, where he and his friends tune performance cars. Struggling to make ends meet, he and his crew participate in street races after hours. After a race, Tobey’s former rival Dino Brewster conscripts them into completing the build of a rare Ford Shelby Mustang worked on by the late Carroll Shelby, in exchange for 25% of the car’s sales revenue.

Does that make any sense at all? If not, it might help to know that the movie was an “adaptation” a video game of the same name. The screenplay is the work of John Gatins (who was nominated for an Oscar in 2012) and his brother George. Exactly how this project came about, I’m not sure, but I guess the idea of a tie-in to a popular videogame was the selling point — a ready-made audience of game enthusiasts — and the plot was contrived to give some kind of dramatic text to the movie’s main action-flick appeal, i.e., lots of car-chase scenes highlighted by dramatic crashes done with CGI effects. If the plot is implausible and the character development deficient, it’s probably because the producers figured, “Who cares? We’re making a movie for an audience of socially awkward teenage loners who have nothing better to do with their lives but spend endless hours playing a stupid race-car game.” Which is to say, the filmmakers have contempt for their audience, and really, who can blame them? Anybody who would pay money to see this movie deserves all the contempt they get. Honestly, I kind of hate myself for wasting two hours watching Need for Speed, and it didn’t cost me a dime.

“Why is this guy the hero?” That question applies not only to the character Tobey Marshall in Need for Speed, but also to the actor Aaron Paul, who plays him. What made Paul so believable as Jesse in Breaking Bad was that he gave off the vibe of the kind of small-town dopehead who would get mixed up in a drug-manufacturing scheme with his former high school chemistry teacher. There wasn’t anything remotely heroic about Jesse, and if viewers found themselves rooting for him, it was only because his and Walter’s enemies — rival drug gangs, etc. — were so monstrously bad. But that vibe doesn’t work in Need for Speed, where the protagonist Tobey is supposed to be a racing driver of exceptional ability who, unfortunately, never got his shot at the big time because his father died (or whatever). Sorry, but I just can’t “buy” Aaron Paul as an extraordinary driver. He is a UCLA film-school graduate’s idea of what a blue-collar hero looks like. And dear God, how the filmmakers strive to sell this underdog-from-the-small-town angle which, by the way, is utterly implausible because Mount Kisco, N.Y., is in Westchester County, an affluent suburb of New York City. While Mount Kisco is somewhat below the county average in terms of household income, it’s not the first place you’d think of when you hear the phrase “blue-collar America.”

Guess what? The target audience didn’t care. Need for Speed grossed about $45 million in domestic release, but nearly four times as much in foreign sales, especially in China. Perhaps something about the scenery of Mount Kisco made it perfect as a foreigner’s idea of what small-town America looks like and, of course, the casting of the movie placed the white protagonist amid an appropriately multicultural crew of “buddies” — a couple of Hispanic dudes and a black guy. Scott Mescudi (who, as a rapper, is known as “Kid Cudi”) as “Sergeant Benny ‘Maverick’ Jackson: a member of Tobey’s crew, and a former National Guard soldier. He is a pilot, able to fly small aeroplanes and helicopters. . . . He owns a Cessna 182” (again, quoting Wikipedia). Would you be surprised to learn that the population of Mount Kisco is less than 1% black? Would you be surprised to learn that very few black people in America are licensed pilots, let alone own their own plane? A used Cessna 182 costs around a quarter-million dollars, and then there’s the cost of hangar rental, maintenance, fuel, etc. Being a small-plane owner is not a cheap hobby.

So the audience is not only supposed to believe that Tobey just happens to be buddies with one of the few black guys in Mount Kisco, but also that Tobey’s buddy just happens to be a statistical rarity, a black pilot with his own plane. And, you may wonder, why does this matter? Because the second act of the movie involves a high-speed cross-country journey and Tobey’s pilot buddy Benny flies as aerial reconnaissance to warn him about cops up ahead or whatever. See, the filmmakers had to find some way to make it (remotely) possible that you could actually get away with driving triple-digit speeds all the way across America in the 21st century, when technology has given law enforcement an insuperable advantage in dealing with speeders. Being an aficionado of police videos on YouTube, I can assure you that Tobey’s cross-country journey would be impossible. And dear God, he’d probably get killed if he went through Arkansas, where the state patrol does not play around.

If it were so easy to get away with driving over 100 mph — which is what the audience of Need for Speed is evidently expected to believe — why doesn’t everybody do it? Video surveillance is omnipresent in America nowadays, and even if you could outrun those high-powered Dodge Chargers that state troopers use as pursuit vehicles, video evidence would permit them eventually to apprehend and convict you of fleeing-and-eluding (a felony). That is, assuming you didn’t kill yourself in a crash, which is not an uncommon fate for such criminals.

Street racing is a crime, and the idea that people who engage in street racing are exceptionally skilled drivers — well, where does that idea come from> Evidence against such a claim isn’t hard to find (e.g., “Tampa police say teens were street racing before crash that killed 2”), and most mature adults probably suspect, as I do, that street racers usually are just show-offs with misplaced priorities. And again, I return to this question about the protagonist in Need for Speed: “Why is this guy the hero?”

If you’re the kind of awkward teenager who wastes your life playing video games, I suppose, there might be a fantasy-fulfillment aspect to Need for Speed that makes you relate to Tobey as the hero. And that’s just the problem: The fantasies of maladjusted 15-year-old boys — the cinematic expression of their frustrations, acted out in cartoonish ways — are warped and unrealistic, and are not appealing as entertainment to any intelligent and emotionally healthy person.

Here’s something to think about: Why do we like car chases in classic action movies like Bullitt and The French Connection? Because in both of those movies, the chase involves the good guy chasing the bad guys — and the good guy is a cop. We understand that the criminal, in a desperate attempt to escape justice, will drive with no regard for public safety, and that this in turn requires the police to take risks in order to catch up with the bad guy. Thus, the risk of the chase is forced upon the police protagonist — it’s not what he wants to do, but he is left with no other choice because of the criminal’s action. What makes a movie car chase compelling is conspicuously absent in Need for Speed, which celebrates fast driving for the sake of fast driving, with no regard for motive.

Consider the series of events that leads to the climax of Act One, the death of Tobey’s buddy Pete. There’s this super-valuable Shelby Mustang, recall, and here’s the relevant plot sequence via Wikipedia:

The completed Mustang is displayed for auction at a party in New York City. Tobey and Dino meet Julia Maddon, an English car broker whose client, Bill Ingram, wants to purchase the car if they can prove it will drive over 230 mph, as Tobey claims. Despite Dino’s objections, Tobey takes the Mustang to a local race track and successfully drives it at 234 mph, convincing Ingram to purchase it for $2.7 million.
Enraged by Tobey’s disobedience to his objections, Dino challenges Tobey and his friend Pete to a race after Pete flatly tells Dino that everyone knows Tobey is a better driver than him. Dino offers to relinquish his entire share of the Mustang sale if Tobey wins, otherwise Tobey will have to forfeit his share. He challenges them to race with his uncle’s three Koenigsegg Agera R cars illegally imported from Europe. On the home stretch, realizing he is about to lose the race, Dino intentionally bumps into Pete’s car, sending it down a ravine and killing Pete as it bursts into flames. Dino disappears from the scene, while Tobey is arrested by the police and sentenced to two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, unable to prove Dino was there.

When this movie was made, the Swedish-made Koenigsegg Agera had recently been crowned “Hypercar of the Year” by Top Gear magazine. If you had an extra $1.5 million handy, and an urge to drive 275 mph, this was your car. That Dino’s uncle just happened to have three of these exotic sports cars in his garage, and that Dino decides it’s OK to “borrow” them for his ego-inspired race against Tobey and Pete — well, if that’s not your definition of “implausible,” you need a new dictionary.

Perhaps there is somewhere in America you could get away with street racing in a million-dollar European supercar, but is Westchester County, New York, one of those places? And how many rich guys have three car like that which their nephew thinks it’s OK to borrow for a race inspired by personal revenge over an insult? Anyway . . .

Upon his release on parole, Tobey sets out to avenge Pete’s death. He borrows Ingram’s Mustang to enter the De Leon, a winner-takes-all exotic car race organized by the mysterious Monarch, but as a condition, Ingram requires Julia to accompany Tobey while Tobey is driving the Mustang. The pair have 45 hours to reach San Francisco before the race starts. In Detroit, they cause an interstate chase with the Michigan State Police and upload the footage. Dino offers his rare Lamborghini Sesto Elemento to anyone who can stop Tobey entering the race, causing a group of truckers to go after the Mustang as well. Julia retaliates by convincing Monarch of Tobey’s innocence, securing his invitation to the De Leon.

This idea of the “De Leon” as a sort of international championship of illegal street racing, “organized by the mysterious Monarch” (played by Michael Keaton) is preposterous. The “winner-take-all” means that six guys driving six million-dollar exotic cars (Bugatti, Lamborghini, etc.) are each betting their cars as the stakes, so that the winner gets the cars of the other five drivers. So, yeah, you’re so rich that you can spend $2.4 million for a Bugatti Veyron and you’re also such a macho egomaniac that you’re going to risk this expensive car in a street race against five other supercars, including a hand-built Saleen S7. Grant that some people are both rich and crazy — “Hey, let’s get in a carbon-fiber mini-submarine and go see the Titanic!” — but is it likely that six of them would be racing their million-dollar supercars this way? If you’ve got that kind of money to throw around, why not just rent a racetrack for the weekend?

Or, for that matter, why not build your own racetrack?

Obviously, I’m not the first person to point out this absurdity — or the many other absurdities in Need for Speed. My point, however, isn’t just that this movie is ridiculously bad, but rather that the people who made the movie believed that many people would pay money to see something this bad — and they weren’t wrong! This stinking pile of garbage cost $66 million to make, and it grossed more than $200 million worldwide, which is a sad commentary on the human condition.

In a world full of stupid people, all kinds of terrible things happen, and the fact that this awful movie actually turned a profit is almost as terrible as Joe Biden getting 81 million votes. But yeah, that’s a different definition of “implausible,” I guess.




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