Friday, April 4, 2014

Video Games Stuck in First Gear

Well, superhero films have gotten better. Why not video game movies? Wait, wait, I'm serious! I mean, many game franchises are almost interactive movies as it is, from Mass Effect, to the latest Tomb Raider, to Bioshock, to Halo, to Uncharted. With these games, playing is like penning your own screenplay AND performing the lead role at the same time. So with all these storytelling advancements in the genre, why does Hollywood continue to treat the video game adaptations like the lazy child that hasn't earned its place at the table? Aren't we far enough by now from the early days of Super Mario Bros and Double Dragon? It's tough to get excited about these movies when it's plainly obvious that the biggest studios, actors and directors don't really want anything to do with them. Instead, entire legions of fans are insulted by low budgets, casting of whomever was desperate enough to appear at the time, and even - if they're REALLY special - the execrable presence of Uwe Boll.

SOMEbody needs a booster seat!
And that casual dismissal of the genre is what doomed Need For Speed, the adaptation of the franchise street racing game of the same name, before it could pop the clutch: nobody cares about who made or is in this film, or why. The only reason anybody was interested in the project was because of the racing aspect, a genre already monopolized by the popular, peaking, and far more insane Fast & Furious series. It doesn't help that there's not much story to begin with. After spending the first act on pointless setup, Tobey Marshall (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) is released from two years in prison, immediately hatching a plan to get revenge on entrepreneur/racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who framed Tobey for another man's accidental death. Naturally, revenge involves illegal street racing. Because this is a video game adaptation.
The closest you'll ever get to a "Bro" moment, thank God.
If you can't tell by now, I was thoroughly unimpressed by the hacktastic effort that was Need For Speed's story. Getting beyond the fact that it's an adaptation of a game series that hasn't been particularly popular or memorable in years, the tale is lazily scripted (by first-time writer George Gatins; what a SHOCK they didn't get a good screenwriter on board) and doesn't have nearly the plot to hold together the disconnected racing and chase sequences. The story is a dismal blend of tropes, from Getting the Band Back Together (despite the crew in question being largely inconsequential) to the required Will-They-Won't-They romance between Tobey and Julia - an exotic car dealer who would be completely forgettable were she not played by Imogen Poots - to Poetic Justice in the revenge storyline. There's even the idea of doing all this in the name of the film's most head-shakingly annoying character (why can't anyone genuinely interesting die in these movies?) to get it all started. The story has no flow, the characters have little motivation for their actions (at least, not beyond the usual stereotypical behavior), and there doesn't even appear to be anything akin to logic in the way the plot progresses. It's by-the-numbers blandness, from the pointless opening scene to the ultimately predictable conclusion.
Oh, hey! I was just thinking "Crash & Burn!"
But even Nicolas Cage movies have some redeeming value (Drive Angry was on TV, and now I've got Cage on the brain), and the same is true here. Most notably, it's the direction of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Scott Waugh that keeps things exciting on the screen. The focus on practical effects in the action sequences allows the film to stand apart from the Fast & Furious franchise, which had been defined more by their CGI effects in the more recent entries. And Waugh shows a great improvement in his style, judging from the differences between this and Act of Valor, the military flick he co-directed with Mike McCoy. The visuals are rarely too close to the action (except where understandable), and there really is a feel of excitement seeing these vehicles race, crash and - on occasion - soar like birds. My only complaint comes from the opening race, when we literally have no clue who is driving which car. Still, I can only imagine what Waugh could accomplish were he to have a serious budget on his hands, but he definitely shows a solid aptitude for this kind of noir action thriller.
He wears his sunglasses at night, too.
And despite the characters being written as though they were designed by a third grader on acid, the acting is actually pretty solid. Yes, there are the useless filler roles and Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi plays as token a black, flamboyant sidekick as he can possibly be (which is to say not all that well), the quartet of lead actors really do possess talent and take as much advantage of their screentime as they can. Dominic Cooper might be a six-dimensional actor confined to a one-dimensional stereotype, but he still brings menace to a role that wasn't so threatening as written. Michael Keaton steals the intermissions between action sequences as a cool-as-ice radio DJ pulling strings behind the scenes (and for the record, it's great to see Michael Keaton doing regular work again. He's a fairly amazing performer). Poots is strong as always, and I really can't wait for the young lady to break out as a Hollywood star, even as she seems to be stuck in these sad, third-tier roles. But Aaron Paul might be the biggest surprise. I still haven't seen Breaking Bad, but already it's easy to see why the actor has accumulated so many fans with one role. Yes, his voice is distractingly deep for a man NOTICEABLY only 5'8", and his dialogue borrows directly from "Emo 101", and again, Tobey's motivations as a protagonist are vague at best. Yet Paul commands a presence those unfamiliar with his work would NEVER expect. Simply put, he proves that despite lacking a large frame, he BELONGS front and center. He might be a little too old to enjoy a Tom Cruise-like career at this point, but if he can pull off something of a "Cruise-Lite" path from now on, he'll absolutely deserve it.
When it came to hair gel, no expense was spared...
(Oh, and for the few people who might have noticed that Dakota Johnson, the star of the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey, was in this: she still doesn't impress me. I don't know whether casting directors see something the rest of us don't, or if Johnson is the person they go to when NOBODY ELSE is interested in a role, but I'm really starting to think the latter is the more likely scenario. So, yeah, I'm really convinced 50 Shades will be a dud upon its release in 2015.)
I've got the Need! The Need for Speed! Trademark! 
But great actors and great action does not a great movie make, especially when they are hampered by the kind of script that makes David Goyer look like a certified genius. I don't know if video game adaptations will EVER get the kind of dedication and effort that superhero flicks are getting right now, but Need For Speed is one of those titles that suffers mightily from the connection to its original medium. Could it have been better? Absolutely. Could it have been great? Maybe. But make no mistake, this is a bad movie made worse by the fact that talented people were brought in to try and hide its flaws. The producers behind this movie simply didn't care whether or not it was any good, and despite some excellent visuals and a few more strengths, the evidence is still plain for anyone to see.

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