There may be lots of speculation about the future of DreamWorks in its current incarnation at Disney as my colleague Mike Fleming wrote earlier this week, but you would never know it from last night’s rip-roaring premiere of its latest film, Need For Speed, at the Chinese Theatre. I went in expecting a poor man’s Fast & Furious and instead got a riveting and fun entertainment with lots of heart and emotion in addition to all the stunt driving. The film, which opens Friday and stars Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul as a street racer out for revenge after being framed for a death of a young street-racing rookie, has all the requisite action you would expect from this kind of movie, but there’s so much more. The fact that it marks the second feature directed by former stuntman Scott Waugh (the son of another stuntman, Fred Waugh, who passed away while his son was in preproduction) would lead one to believe it would be all pedal-to-the-metal and no soul, but that’s not the case. Waugh’s first feature behind the camera, Act Of Valor, proved he knew how to put humanity into a genre film. What he’s made here is a good old-fashioned movie that doesn’t rely on CGI, has a genuine story to tell with three-dimensional characters (in 3D, no less), and great locations.
It also presents yet another reason the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences needs to re-consider its decision not to create a 25th category for stunt work. Come on, these people deserve the recognition on a regular basis. I do understand the ticklish situation with the Actors branch, the Academy’s largest and most powerful, but this kind of work is definitely Oscar worthy. The Television Academy has a stunt peer group and recently even split comedy and drama stunt coordination into two separate Emmy categories. Veteran stuntman-director Hal Needham got an Honorary Oscar in 2012, and I suppose the Academy feels that’s enough recognition for now (Needham passed away several months after getting that Oscar). But it’s not.
Despite rampant speculation that she’s heading for Fox, DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider was all smiles at the premiere and post-party at Hollywood and Highland’s OHM nightclub — clearly hoping she has a much-needed spring hit after fall disappointments including The Fifth Estate and The Delivery Man. No matter what happens with the film boxoffice-wise, it marks a good moment for Waugh, who should be heavily in demand after Need For Speed. He told me all he really wanted to do was to make a Top Gun-style movie that’s pure fun. Hence the title. The marketing campaign — at least the billboard and print images — seems to be selling it in the much the same way as Gone In 60 Seconds or Days Of Thunder (the day-glo portrait of star Paul is particularly reminiscent of the latter’s campaign) and seems to be aimed squarely at young males. I would say, though, that the female audience will like it just as much if they can be “driven” to see what is on the surface a high-testosterone movie experience. There’s a great relationship subplot between Paul and co-star Imogen Poots that’s nicely played throughout. As for the two-time Emmy-winning Paul, this is his breakthrough as a movie star, and with any luck he’ll become one. In addition to making a believable action star, he brings real heart to the role. He told me he resisted the project at first. “I didn’t even want to read the script,” he said, believing initially (like me) that the story based on an Electronic Arts video game was basically a Fast & Furious knockoff. But he eventually was won over. The script is from George Gatins, who was joined in developing the story by his Oscar-nominated brother John Gatins, who brought similar dimension to 2012’s Flight. Their work is a lot better than the usual video game to movie projects I’ve seen.
One of Paul’s Breaking Bad co-stars, Betsy Brandt, was at the premiere and headed straight to Waugh to tell him how impressed she was with the film. She said she’s ready for Emmy season to start after largely ignoring all the Oscar hoopla. Although Breaking Bad wrapped its run in September, the final eight episodes make it eligible for one last run at the Emmys, where it won big last year. The show has been on a sort of victory tour all season, winning at just about every single Guild awards show and the Golden Globes. It will be interesting to see if AMC can keep that kind of momentum through the Emmy season, where competition promises to be fierce this year. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston didn’t make the premiere because he just opened this week to rave reviews playing President Lyndon B. Johnson on Broadway. Good excuse for the multi-talented actor, who has his own hoped-for movie blockbuster, Godzilla, opening in May, just as that Emmy and Tony season heats up. He almost certainly will be a big part of both.
As for DreamWorks, its next turn at bat will be in August with the uplifting true-life drama, The Hundred-Foot Journey starring Helen Mirren and produced by, among others, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. It’s about an Indian family who moves to Paris and opens a restaurant directly across from a major four-star Parisian dining spot. August is the slot where the studio found so much box office and Oscar success with The Help two years ago and where Winfrey scored a hit in Lee Daniels’ The Butler last year. On paper at least, Need For Speed sounds like a winner, no matter what changes might — or might not — be in store for the company.