Need for Speed: The AK Team’s Expectations

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With the upcoming Need for Speed film releasing this Friday, March 14th, we look back on what NFS means to us and what we expect out of the first film in the franchise. Victor, Alex, and Hari weigh in with their loves, gripes, hopes and expectations.

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Victor’s Take:

The first time I outsmarted the cops, pushing 180mph in a Jaguar XJR-15, I was 10 years-old. Windy mountain roads, frantic police chatter, spike strips, helicopters, police cruisers; it all meshed into a cacophony of speed, excitement and reflexes. The gratification of spinning a pursing police cruiser into a guard rail, or pushing them into spike strips meant for me, was only trumped by the scott-free feeling immediately after, and the open road in front. This was a two-car, high stakes race that ends in one of three ways: Win, Lose, Arrested. I wasn’t about to let the latter two happen. I was unstoppable. A well-oiled machine, made to chew up street races, and spit out checkered flags. I was a ghost the police would tell stories about. A myth.

Or, at least that’s what it felt like to me. I was a 10 year-old playing a racing game, plenty of time was spent in a wall, or leaning on the horn while on a collision course into my older brother, just to annoy him, all while laughing hysterically ( it worked -AK.). That was always the thing that drew me to the Need for Speed franchise. When done right, they felt fantastic, no matter how you played. You could say the same for a lot of games, but there was something about the way NFS combined exotic cars, exciting races, great music, and a great sense of speed. Not many games, especially back in the Playstation one days, really nailed that sense of speed like NFS did. Even today, racers still miss the mark and it really just doesn’t feel right. It can feel bland and lackluster. Need for Speed always made me feel like I was pushing 150mph, or 180mph, or whatever. The series has gone through some ups and downs, and through different iterations, but for me, that sense of speed was always there. I even liked the Underground games.

This is all a long preface to exploring what I want out of the upcoming Need For Speed film, but that is what the franchise means to me. The games have never been a simulation – I have Gran Turismo for that – they have always been fast, arcade racers. Get in, go fast, win, do cool shit along the way. They even, for the most part, had great soundtracks as well. To this day, I still regularly listen to the various soundtracks, Saki Kaska – Callista from NFS High Stakes (and Mass Effect 2’s Club Afterlife if you’re a nerd like me) being one of my favorite songs.

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That’s what I want from the movie. I want exotic cars, high stakes, a real sense of speed, and throw in a little quirk and cheesiness, because fuck it have some fun. I was interested to see where they would take this, when I first heard the announcement. The franchise not having a real story allows the filmmakers to take it in any direction that they want. Yes, individual games had their own plots and arcs, but that was all just stuffing in between races. Macguffins to move things along. To make the obvious story comparison, which I’m sure has been used to the Nth degree, Need for Speed is most similar to 2011’s Need for Speed: The Run. I’ve always loved the idea of a Cannonball Run-esque cross country race. It’s like a fun road trip with your buddies, but replace all the boring bits with cars exploding, old rivals, and people having sex at 200mph or whatever.

The premise is solid and allows a lot of freedom. The trailer, which I actually enjoyed, sets an interesting stage for potential. I expect a fair amount of camp and over the top cheesiness, and that’s great! If I want a serious racing film, I’ll watch Senna (and then cry for an hour.) I want an over the top, ridiculous, action car movie that isn’t Driven, or Redline. It’s a fine line, but a well made, absurd racing film is possible. The director, Scott Waugh, has also been a stuntman since 1994, and promises that only practical effects were used in the film, no CGI. I love practical effects, this inspires a lot of confidence and also ensures that it won’t turn into Speed Racer. Give me stunt ramps, cars exploding, tumbling off the road at 160mph. I want tight, low angle, high speed shots. I want to be in the car.

What do I want, and hope for in Need for Speed? A check list:

  1. Exotic cars.
  2. Good Soundtrack
  3. Actual excitement
  4. Not taking itself too seriously (not super worried about this one)
  5. Sense of speed

I really do think I am going to enjoy the film, and it will be a fun ride. Worst comes to worst though, if all else fails, Michael Keaton looks to be some race radio host to serve as narrator/exposition master, so really how bad could it be?

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Alex’s Take:

I feel compelled to kick this off with a little primer to set the stage: I’ve had a long standing and tumultuous relationship with the Need for Speed franchise starting back on Playstation one. I was probably drawn in to (or at least made aware of) the series’ third entry, Hot Pursuit, where the standard races on tournaments were joined by the hot pursuit police chase mode, an element that defined the series in some capacity from then on. I personally fell in love with High Stakes, the fourth Need for Speed game where you could bet your car in two-player challenges, resulting in the victor walking away with your hard earned memory card data.

This isn’t what endeared me to to the game, in fact it was my least favorite aspect of it. What causes me to love this game as much as I do is a combination of the music, the presentation of the menus and the aspirational fantasy of driving exotic cars on through ambiguously European settings (Route Adonf, anyone?). for me, it evokes the feeling we get when we flip through a buff mag or spot a poster and our eyes gloss over as our mind transports us to that faraway driving daydream.

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When The Fast & the Furious film debuted, NFS wholeheartedly, tragically, disappointingly jumped on the bandwagon. The awe inspiring imagery of dream cars was replaced by the glorification of stanced civics swathed in neon, sporting more wings than the Luftwaffe. Like a battered spouse, I came back, entry after entry, hoping to a return to form. The gameplay certainly innovated with much of the customization and open-world driving that is ubiquitous today, but the glimmer that so attracted to me to the series was gone, and in its place was the laughably flimsy plot that attempted to put into context the premise of illegal street racing and “taking them down from the inside,” not to mention the abject horror that was the live action sequences, wherein C-list actors and horrible dialogue attempt do draw the player in to “see what he’s made of” because he “thinks he’s got what it takes” or some such nonsense.

The upcoming movie Need for Speed looks to borrow heavily from the 2011 entry, The Run, in which the the main character buys in to an illegal cross-country race in exotic cars in order to save him from being in debt to the wrong people. While I long for a car movie that isn’t F&F and is something I can actually bare watching without cringing myself to death, I can’t say that NFS ever did plot in a great way. If you take a look back at our review of NFS:The Run, you’ll get a better idea of what I mean, but going back to the Underground series onward, the thin context of the game was the worst part. The FMV was abhorrent. I urge you to youtube some of the cutscenes, palm at the ready for your face.

Interestingly, as the games peeled back on the story, they’ve lured me back in. the Undegrounds were laughable. The Run? No actual people, but still embarrassingly composed of dumb characters. 2010’s Hot Pursuit sort of had a plot, but it was more of a very vague premise that was only fleshed out in small text boxes between mission selects, and thats mostly ignorable. I prefer that to the outright in-your-face plot because my imagination does most of the work and I genuinely feel drawn in, without characteristics imposed upon me, the player, as if I was a Shane-like protagonist who rolls into town to turn the local gang on its head/terrorize the local sheriff. Criterion followed this with Most Wanted, which that had no plot at all, and this is the game where I actively thought that it might be the game that makes me fall back in love with the series. I haven’t played Rivals yet.

What it boils down to, for me, is that I want Need for Speed to be good, and I really want to see these amazing cars shot beautifully as they tear across highways and backroads in glorious, dramatic sequences, but I’m concerned that the nature of cinema necessitates the worst element of NFS: people.

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Hari’s Take:

Hollywood has spent decades turning our favorite books and stories into movies. Some great, most terrible, but no shortage of options. It seems that the latest inspiration then for Hollywood popcorn flicks is video games, most notable of which is the $200 million dollar disaster that was Disney’s Prince of Persia. Still, not dissuaded by this it seems Hollywood is taking a stab at one of the video game industries longest running series, Need For Speed.

Running since 1994, the Need For Speed series has a legion of faithful to rival any major game franchises. Thus the idea of dragging that legion out to local theaters over the next few weeks seems like a reasonable fiscal decision for any studio. I personally have played each iteration since Need For Speed: Underground (2003) and for the most part have enjoyed them all. This is what makes it all the more confusing to me that they are converting this to the big screen.

This is, at least for me, a fantasy series. The roots of which are not as much planted in “driving” as one may think. Need For Speed was never really an accurate simulation, that was what Forza or the Gran Turismo series was for. Need For Speed was a different monster entirely. Since my introduction/infatuation with the series started with the Underground switch, Need For Speed for me has always been about customized cars in opposite lock screeching around corner of an intersection that looks vaguely reminiscent of a street corner not too far from you. It was the thrill of “precision” driving that had burst off the civilized tracks and and circuits and poured onto our city streets. Of course the law enforcement aspect of the game adds some good ol’ fashion illegality and a “NASCAR-ian” disregard for the law. What red blooded American wouldn’t like that. Mix it in with easy controls, great music and an overall well designed game and you have a winner every time.

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All of this build up is to say that the interpretation of this beloved brand into movie has a lot riding on the line. Chances of it crossing the bar … low. Truth is two kinds of people will go to see this movie: People who like cars and People who like the game. This is not to say that they are mutually exclusive, only to say that there are not exclusively mutual. Chances are who ever “scripted” (read: wrote fan-fiction for) this movie knew that he needed to broaden the appeal as far as possible in order to sell it. How do you do that? Simple. Take 50 high end bedroom poster worth cars, race them in picturesque settings, crash a few of them every 20 minutes or so and finally loosely tie it together with a story line. Throw in a single B-lister to headline a couple finely sculpted women to stare at and you’ve got 90 minutes of popcorn consumption.

Notice at no point did I mention anything about character, plot development or any of the script mechanics that redeem films. That’s because the worst part of Need For Speed was the people. Truthfully, if Need For Speed wasn’t about driving simulation, then it was even less about a story line. Ask the average consumer what Need For Speed is, and he/she will tell you “it’s a car game”. When you translate that to the silver screen … you get Redline?

It seems like a good closing to mention that the Fast and Furious series originated from an article by journalist Ken Li in Vibe magazine back in May 1998. It was titled “Racer X” and chronicled the exploits of a street racer Rafael Estevez from Washington Heights as he shot through the streets of New York City in his Nissan 300ZX. It was a compelling look at the culture of street racing as seen first hand on Francis Lewis Blvd in Queens or Fountain Ave in Brooklyn. The piece gained recognition in the urban automotive scene was soon being passed around the early internet message board like fire. Nearly 20 years, and 6 terrible movies later, the things that made this article great are all but gone, lost to the gimmicks of tailspins in S2000 and a poorly constructed story line. Need For Speed is Racer X. It didn’t want to be anything but what it was. A fun time with an entertaining premise all pulled together with the loose veneer of story line. Sounds great for a video game … not so much for a movie.

There you have it, our two cents. The film premieres this weekend, so come back to AK next week for a follow up to see how the film stacked up to our expectations.

Words By: Victor Kalogiannis, Alex Kalogiannis, and Hari Mani

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