Chuck Koplinski: Grounded 'Need for Speed' outdistances 'Furious'

Chuck Koplinski: Grounded 'Need for Speed' outdistances 'Furious'

Do we need another movie built around fast cars and reckless drivers? Or for that matter, one based on a video game?

For me, the answer is a resounding "No" to both questions, and that being the case, I went into Scott Waugh's "Need for Speed" with the mind-set that the film already had two strikes against it.

However, again I was reminded of the perils of prejudging as this proved to be a genuinely exciting, if not overly original piece of high-octane popcorn entertainment, buoyed not only by inventively staged chase sequences but a sympathetic, grounded performance from Aaron Paul, around whom all of this vehicular mayhem ensues.

The actor stars as Tobey Marshall, a grease monkey with a custom car shop of his own, left to him by his father, that's on the verge of collapse. He loves what he does, as well as the crew he has assembled, but the work that comes in (plus whatever he can pick up winning illegal road races) simply doesn't pay the bills.

An offer he can't refuse walks through his door one day in the form of Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper, looking every bit the bad guy), an old rival who has gotten away with Marshall's girlfriend Anita (Dakota Johnson). He needs a rare Mustang customized to the tune of $250,000, a job the crew jumps at, thus feeding their passion and saving their friend's business at the same time.

This transaction is not the last bit of business that Marshall and Brewster engage in, as they have a throwdown on the road between themselves and Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), Anita's brother. He ends up dead, thanks to Brewster's dastardly doings, while Marshall takes the blame and does two years in prison on a manslaughter charge, only to come out looking for a bit of revenge and redemption.

He finds his opportunity in the De Leon, a high-speed road race that takes place on the highways and byways of California, organized by Monarch (Michael Keaton), a mysterious moneyed maniac who lives vicariously through the drivers. Marshall, Brewster and a handful of others duel to near-death in their sleek, road-hugging machines, causing all sorts of glorious-looking wrecks as they race more for pride than the pink slips of the autos they use that are on the line.

To be sure, this is the silliest of premises, but for what it is, there's no denying that it's done exceptionally well. Waugh, a former stuntman helming only his second film, ("Act of Valor" was the first) takes an old-school approach that helps distance it from the "Fast and Furious" franchise. All of the racing here was actually executed on the road, as no computer-generated effects were employed. You won't see the cars doing anything that a car can't do, and the difference is palpable. Using inventive camera placement and an editing rhythm that adopts a rapid tempo but doesn't distract us from the action, Waugh fashions an old-fashioned car film using modern cinematic technology that roars off the screen.

Obviously, a movie like this can't survive on muscle cars alone, and while the revenge plot that's used is as hoary as a threadbare rug, the cast is committed to it in such a way that we don't mind knowing right where it's headed. Paul is as solid as we've come to expect him to be from "Breaking Bad," bringing sympathy to the stereotype he's saddled with as well as a bit of charm.

His co-star, Imogen Poots as his shotgun co-pilot Julia, is feisty and not just a piece of eye candy. Her quick wit plays well off Paul's quiet demeanor, and the many scenes they share are so good that we don't mind that we're taking a breather from the constant action. Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek and Ramon Rodriguez as Marshall's crew all get their comedic moment in the spotlight which they take advantage of to great effect. As for Keaton, he's so manic that you can't help but think you're watching a middle-aged Beetlejuice, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"Need for Speed" is designed to thrill as well as launch a franchise with Paul at the center. Whether two speed-based series can survive at the box office remains to be seen. However, with the exception of "Fast 5," "Need for Speed" is superior in almost every way, primarily because of Paul's ability to anchor the movie and Waugh's dedication to filming this adventure in a way that does not insult our intelligence yet deliver the thrills audiences demand.

'Need for Speed' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Michael Keaton, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Harrison Gilbertson and Dakota Johnson.

Directed by Scott Waugh; produced by John Gatins, Patrick O'Brien and Mark Sourian; screenplay by George Gatins.

A DreamWorks production. 130 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language.) At AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"300" sequel a rousing, blood-soaked adventure. (3 stars) I was one of the few who wasn't completely taken in by Zack Snyder's "300."

While the aesthetic he employed — digital backgrounds, bleeding colors and darkly accented characters that suggested a comic book on acid — was gripping, the story it was wrapped around seemed a bit too slight for me to take a rooting interest in King Leonidas and his doomed 300. Again, with a $210 million worldwide take at the box office, I was obviously one of the few that jumped on the bandwagon.

With that much money having been pulled in, it's surprising that Warner Brothers waited so long to capitalize on the film's success. Yet, fans had to wait seven years for the inevitable sequel to hit the big screen, and for my money, it was worth it.

Director Noam Murro's "300: Rise of an Empire" follows in the steps of its predecessor with its highly stylized look, yet focuses on a more engaging tale: a naval battle between the Greek and Persian forces that takes place at the same time of King Leonidas' courageous yet futile stand. There's a greater sense of scope at play, and the characters are far more dynamic than those in the first — which helps see the film through, even though it becomes repetitious before its bloody end.

Having gained legendary status for killing King Darius (Igal Naor) at the Battle of Marathon a decade earlier, Gen. Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) faces an even greater challenge when he must lead the Greek navy into battle against the Persian fleet. His foe is a worthy one as, spurred on by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who longs to avenge his father, King Darius, his forces are in the hands of Artemisia (Eva Green), a sadistic warrior who has no problem kissing the lips of men she has just decapitated, a gesture of intimidation that keeps all the men in her command in check.

Employing repeated flashbacks to give us Themistokles, Xerxes and Artemisia's backstories, the film wastes little time getting to the bloodletting. Warriors are impaled, eyes are gouged out, limbs are hacked off, men drown by the score and heads are crushed under horses' hooves, and all of it looks beautiful under Murro's hand.

Every wound gives way to a slow-motion splatter of blood (to justify the use of 3-D technology), and all of this takes place against a background of roiling, dark ominous clouds sometimes penetrated by the occasional piercing ray of sunlight. While the action is gruesome, there's no question that it's artistically impressive, the sort of project that contains scenes you would want to freeze when the film is released on home video in order to study their visual composition. Like "Dredd," this is the sort of film you end up admiring more than enjoying.

While Stapleton is a bit too bland to adequately fill out the hero's role, Santoro commands the viewer's attention as Xerxes, the mad demigod whose lust for vengeance clouds his better judgment. The actor's crazed look and impressive physical demeanor makes for an imposing enemy worthy of the Greeks' fear.

However, Green steals every scene she's in, obviously relishing the opportunity to play such a grand, irredeemable villain. Sexy, sultry and dangerous, the actress commands the screen and leaves little doubt that she enjoys dominating the men around her, conveying so much strength that you never question why the men in her vast armada say "How high?" whenever she barks "Jump!"

Amid all of the elaborate visual tricks at play, Green proves that nothing can overshadow a grand flesh-and-blood performance that can be writ larger than any artificial special effect.

Two timeless classics grace area screens. John Wayne is running from his past, and Cary Grant is on the run for his life in two timeless classics that are running on area screens this weekend.

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day is John Ford's "The Quiet Man" (4 stars), the 1952 feature that won the director his fourth Oscar and serves as an eternal valentine to Ireland. Wayne stars as John Thornton, an ex-American boxer who comes back to the Irish village he was born in to live out the rest of his days in solitude.

However, he doesn't count on falling in love at first sight with the fiery Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara, at her most luminous) or having to contend with her bully of a brother, Red (Victor McLaglen) who refuses to hand over his sister's dowry when the proper rules of courting are ignored. A clash of cultures ensues as Thornton's liberal ways run counter to the traditions of the village, all of which culminates in an epic comic fistfight that takes him and Red over hill and dale and through the town before matters can be put to rest.

While some have complained about the sexism in the film, it's all done with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and those who level these complaints overlook the fact that the strongest character in the film is Mary Kate herself.

Shot in gorgeous Technicolor, this is a film that begs to be seen on a big screen in order to appreciate the lovely landscapes Ford captured. With members from the director's stock company (look for Ward Bond, Francis Ford and Mildred Natwick), uproarious comedic scenes and arguably the most romantic kiss in film history, "The Quiet Man" is the sort of sincere, cinematic storytelling that's rarely seen today.

Appearing on screens seven years later, Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" (4 stars) is the first modern action film and features Cary Grant at his finest as Roger Thornhill, an ad executive who is mistaken for a government agent and is soon running for his life as a group of foreign spies think he has a piece of microfilm they need, which, of course, he knows nothing about.

Though the film runs a bit over two hours, the pace Hitchcock adapts makes the events breeze by, buoyed by the charm of Grant and Eva Marie Saint, the menace of James Mason and Martin Landau as the villains in pursuit and accentuated by the various set pieces in the film, the crop-dusting scene being one of the most thrilling and gripping action sequences in screen history.

Still exciting 55 years after its release, "North by Northwest" is a movie that has defied the ravages of time and serves as a wonderful entry point for anyone unfamiliar with Hitchcock's work.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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