Currently the Rotten Tomatoes rating for Need for Speed is 23% (57% audience score). I can understand why it wasn’t a critical success, but I’m definitely on the side of the audience here.
Watch this movie if…
- …you like car racing movies.
- …you like practical special effects (rather than CGI).
- …you don’t mind a ridiculous premise.
- …you like happy endings and don’t mind a predictable plot.
Do NOT watch this movie if…
- …you are tired of The Fast and the Furious franchise.
- …you hate tropes and are hoping for some literary merit.
- …your attention span is less than 130 minutes.
- …you are a pedantic gearhead.
Personally, I don’t mind stories whose plots I can predict. After all, I’ve been trying to become an expert on plot by watching and summarizing movies. What bugs me is when I can predict the dialogue, and this movie didn’t have that problem. A commercially successful movie plot has to have certain elements, but there’s no excuse for stale dialogue. If the characters are going to say something obvious, they may as well say nothing at all.
See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
The movie’s greatest flaw is the prologue.
Once the plot actually gets going, it’s a lot of fun, but introducing all the characters by straightforwardly telling the backstory seems like a mistake. There’s so much going on it could have been a whole separate prequel movie. Alternatively, the relevant facts could have been embedded in flashbacks… or just left out!
A good piece of fiction is like an iceberg. There’s a lot of hard work put into the backstory that you don’t see, but it makes the iceberg float. What if you push the iceberg up onto land and show everyone the stuff that’s usually underwater? Bad idea. Too much ice!
I guess I’m glad it was a straightforward prologue rather than a garbled mess, which would have been worse. Imagine if the scriptwriters had aimed for and fallen short of what was done at the beginning of Speed Racer (2008) where for the first eight or ten minutes we’re shown a single sequence composed of a dizzying mix of flashbacks and bits of an in-progress race. That opening is a real achievement. Yeah, it’s backstory, but it’s gripping.
My Beat Sheet for Need for Speed
The not-so-gripping prologue in Need for Speed introduces us to the characters and sets up the stakes for the conflict. The characters are:
- Tobey, the driver/mechanic hero
- his shop buddies
- Anita, his ex-girlfriend
- Pete, Anita’s little brother
- Dino, his rival
- Julia, a new romantic interest
At a drive-in movie theater in a small town somewhere in New York, we learn that the ex-girlfriend’s little brother Pete has had a triumphant vision of a race to a lighthouse. Tobey says Pete is like a little brother to him, at which point we know he’s going to die tragically.
Dino, a pro driver and supercar dealer, offers to hire Tobey and friends to fix up a special car. Tobey needs the money to save his garage, which belonged to his late father, because all heroes are orphans, so he accepts the job.
At the party showcasing the finished car, Tobey meets a car-savvy British woman named Julia who arranges a buyer. The buyer only wants the car if it can go, like, really fast. Tobey promises it can, and they arrange a meeting at the track.
Tobey drives the car and the buyer is pleased. Dino is furious with Tobey for driving such an expensive car when he was only supposed to be building it.
When Dino proposes a grudge race with a huge payout, Tobey and Pete accept. Dino borrows three fancy cars from a client and off they go. Since Tobey is a better driver and Dino is a sore loser, near the end of the race, Dino deliberately bumps Pete’s car, which flies into the air, flips over, explodes, and falls off a bridge. As predicted, Pete is toast. Tobey is devastated.
Dino, evil bastard that he is, successfully avoids being connected in any way to Pete’s death. Tobey goes to jail for manslaughter.
This has all been prologue. The actual story hasn’t started yet. It’s a revenge story. Now we know what Tobey wants revenge for.
Tobey gets out of jail.
Tobey wants to beat Dino in a race, to prove his skill as he was unable to do in the race that killed Pete.
The owner of the supercar Tobey built lets him borrow it to enter a mysterious, high-profile, illegal race, but insists that Julia go with him. The race will start somewhere on the West Coast, soon, so they have to get across the country, and (naturally) there’s not much time.
Tobey doesn’t want Julia to come with him, so he tries to scare her out of the car by driving like a madman, with the help of his pilot friend flying overhead.
Break into Two
Julia says it won’t work, he’s stuck with her, and moreover, he’s wrong about what kind of person she is.
Fun and Games
Tobey parks in front of an office building where one of his buddies works. Another of his buddies phones and says Tobey needs his help. The car has to be adjusted so that it can drive properly. Tobey demonstrates by driving around the building.
Tobey’s buddy strips naked and walks away from his job. People complain that the minor characters in this movie are cardboard, but… honestly, this doesn’t seem like a very cardboard thing to do. Certainly I wasn’t expecting the scene to turn out the way it did. When asked why he couldn’t wear his clothes AND quit, he says he wanted to ensure he would never go back.
The pilot friend has commandeered a traffic copter and helps Tobey escape the city police. Uploaded videos of the chase catch the attention of Monarch, the guy in charge of the mysterious race.
Julia learns why Tobey wants in on the race so badly. It’s to honor the memory of Pete. She calls in to Monarch’s radio show and says she’s the passenger in the rogue car, and Tobey should be in the race. Monarch decides to send Tobey an invitation with instructions for how to join.
Tobey and Julia almost get caught by a state trooper when they stop at a gas station to fill up. Julia fakes an American accent but gets chased into the second floor of the next-door building. Tobey tells her to jump down, but she’s afraid of heights. Finally she jumps anyway and he catches her. Yay! She faced her fear! Meanwhile, Tobey has disabled the trooper’s car so that they can escape again.
Learning that Tobey has been invited to join the race, Dino puts a bounty on him. After Tobey’s buddies refuel the car as it goes down the highway, Julia takes the wheel so Tobey can rest.
Bounty hunters attack. Julia wins a game of chicken with a Hummer. (See, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover!) However, the car is ultimately forced off the road. Julia and Tobey are rescued when their pilot friend shows up in a US Army helicopter, insists they call him Maverick, and airlifts the car off a cliff. Yay, teamwork!
Julia is still scared of heights, but with Tobey’s help, manages to calm down.
Bad Guys Close In
Tobey and Julia arrive exhausted and a little late in San Francisco at the specified location to register for the race. Tobey almost gets into a physical fight with Dino, but manages to restrain himself. He super duper doesn’t want to get arrested since he’s supposed to be on parole in New York, as Dino kindly reminds him. Tobey tells Dino that soon he’ll be hanging upside down in a car and he won’t go back for him, just like Dino didn’t go back for Pete.
All Is Lost
Tobey and Julia are in the car, about to head to a hotel to shower and rest for a few hours, when they are hit by another bounty hunter driving a huge truck. The supercar is totaled. Julia is injured. Crap.
Dark Night of the Soul
Tobey carries Julia to the hospital and leaves her there. There’s nothing he can do for her. He needs a car so he can race! He calls his ex-girlfriend, Anita, who works with and is engaged to Dino. They meet on a bridge.
Break into Three
At some point, Anita has realized that Dino has a dark secret, and by snooping in his computer, has even figured out what it is. He is guilty of bumping her brother Pete’s car and causing him to crash, just as Tobey claimed all along. He has secreted the scratched car that he drove in the race in some kind of storage facility.
Anita tells Tobey she is leaving Dino now that she’s realized he’s an evil bastard, and gives Tobey the address and security code for the unit where the car is being stored. He and his buddies go and get it. Tobey goes back to the hospital where Julia is now conscious and tells her he has a car for the race.
Dino is surprised to see Tobey pull up to the start of the race in a car he thought was safely hidden. Things are starting to unravel for him and the race hasn’t even started! To complicate things, the local law-enforcement authorities are soon painfully aware of the race and set traps for the racers. All the other racers who aren’t Dino and Tobey are eliminated somehow or other, and then of course Dino is in second place, and starts to try the same trick on Tobey that he used on Pete. Tobey thwarts his attempt. Dino’s car crashes. Tobey speeds towards the finish line, but then changes his mind and goes back to help Dino, whose car has caught fire. (Yay, forgiveness!) Tobey pulls him to safety, and then of course the car immediately explodes. Tobey punches him and says “That’s for Pete!” then gets back in his car and drives to the finish line, which is at a lighthouse, the one that Pete saw in his vision.
Tobey is arrested at the lighthouse for illegal racing.
Dino goes to jail because now there’s evidence that Tobey was telling the truth about the day Pete died. (Yay, justice!) Six months later, Tobey gets out of jail. Julia picks him up and says they’ve got to hurry over and pick up Maverick, who’s about to be released from jail for commandeering that Army helicopter. He’s been teaching a fitness/dance class for the inmates.
Other Video Game Adaptations I Have Watched
- Tomb Raider (2018)
- Ready Player One (2018)
- Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
- Tron: Legacy (2010)
- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
- Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
- Super Mario Bros. (1993)
- The Last Starfighter (1984)
- Tron (1982)
Other Video Game Adaptations I Am Interested in Watching
Nope, not the horror ones, thanks.
- Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)
I’m so proud of the studio for actually listening to the people who hated the early character design…
- Detective Pikachu (2019)
- Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life (2003)
The Guardian explains the difference between the good adaptations and the bad.
I love the comment at the bottom that says Edge of Tomorrow is basically an adaptation of a video game that doesn’t exist. Spot on!