Movies based on video games are – as is common knowledge at this point – largely dubious affairs. To this day, the golden standards for the genre have been, at least according to scuttlebutt amongst the crew, Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 hit Mortal Kombat, followed by perhaps his Resident Evil. I admit that I (amongst a passionate cult of oddballs) have a personal weakness for the clunky weird-fest that was Super Mario Bros., but anyway you slice it, none of those films are stellar examples of the cinematic form. Why doesn’t the video-game-to-movie transition ever properly pass muster? Two reasons: #1: Simple video games (fight games, Mario games) don’t translate well to the more detailed form of the standard Hollywood three-act screenplay. #2: Newer, more complex video games – the kind that take hundreds of hours to complete – have become too elaborate to be reduced into a 90-minute feature.
If you know of a decent obscure anime film based on a video game, just list it in the comments section below.
Have said all that, I can say with confidence that Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed is perhaps the best live-action video game movie made to date. It’s still not very good. But its simple premise and enjoyably goofy set pieces, all operating within a well-worn B-movie genre, the car chase movie, give Need for Speed a basic grindhouse appeal that evokes less Xbox and more drive-in theater. This is an exploitation movie through-and-through. If one were to trim down its too-lengthy 130-minute runtime into a workable 86, throw in some drug references and three or four scenes of topless women, then this movie might be trash perfected.
As it stands, the film is a little too exposition-heavy (the current Hollywood ethos seems to be that more story = better story), a little too slick, a little too… clean for its own good. Aaron Paul pays an expert mechanic and expert car racer who – at the beginning of the film – loses his wide-eyed little brother to the high-speed, car-based machinations of an evil bourgeois car collector played by Dominic Cooper, who also manages to frame Paul for his act of vehicular manslaughter.
Fast-forward a few years, and Paul is ready to get revenge, mostly by besting Cooper in a super-secret car race, a race so secret, the entrants don’t know its location until a day beforehand. The race is hosted by an eccentric billionaire played by Michael Keaton, easily the best thing in the movie. Keaton spends the entirely of his screen time locked in a secret room where he hosts a popular underground radio show, monitoring the races he orchestrates with elaborate computer monitors. He’s like an affable concoction of equal parts Howard Hughes, Jigsaw, and Lightning McQueen.
The bulk of the movie is taken up with Paul’s character racing across the entire country to get to the location of the race. He drives fast, refuels at top speed (but only once), and banters with the rich girl (Imogen Poots) who wants to help him, all while receiving driving directions from his helicopter-flying buddy (Scott Mescudi). Road movies are a mixed bag, but when they work, they work well. They work here. What’s more, since we have a clear set of the protagonist’s goals, there is – mercifully – a sense of actual urgency to the proceedings.
This isn’t to say that Need for Speed is necessarily worth your time, though. It doesn’t have quite the genuine, gleeful thrill of true exploitation (see 2007’s little-known Redline for that). It takes way too long to get going (the first 20-30 minutes could have been cut wholesale), and the late-film plot twists are unneeded. Plus Paul, as the main character, has little to do than express the usual, dull bout of steely action movie determination – kind of the default setting for most action heroes. But it does manage to having something, and that something is this: fun.