If you’re in the market for a movie about fast cars that makes the “The Fast and the Furious”—along with its succession of sequels—look literate and clever, this rickety ride is for you. The racing sequences in “Need for Speed” certainly pass muster, but everything else in it is a total wreck. The movie is hilariously melodramatic muscle-car camp, unbearably loud and extremely stupid. But can one expect much more from a movie inspired by a hugely popular video game?
The script, credited to George Gatins, is basically a simple-minded revenge tale, so old-fashioned that it might have served as the basis for one of Roger Corman’s cheapie exploitation flicks of the 1950s. Aaron Paul, who made a splash on “Breaking Bad” but is dull as dishwater here (an even blander version of Justin Timberlake), plays Tobey Marshall, a small-town wiz of a mechanic who’s taken over his dad’s garage, where he’s joined by supposedly colorful chums Finn (Rani Malek), Joe (Ramon Rodriguez) and Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson). On the side he’s a local drag-racing champ.
Enter the villain, rich NASCAR pro Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), an erstwhile rival who’s stolen his dream and his erstwhile girlfriend Anita (Dakota Johnson), Little Pete’s sister. Dino approaches Tobey to do some work for him on a legendary old Mustang, but before long the two of them, along with Little Pete, get involved in an impromptu highway race in a trio of European speedsters, in the course of which Pete is killed. Though nasty Dino really caused his death, he frames Tobey, who goes to prison for the crash.
Upon his release Tobey is seething with thoughts of revenge. He persuades a rich patron to fund his possible entry in a legendary underground race called the De Leon mounted by a mysterious guy called Monarch (Michael Keaton), but there’s a hitch: in addition to getting Finn and Joe to rejoin his crew on the cross-country trip to California at full throttle, he’ll have to take along the patron’s chief advisor, beautiful Julia Madden (Imogen Potts). There’s also another member of Tobey’s team: fast-talking Benny (Scott Mescudi, aka rapper Kid Cudi), who shadows him by plane or copter to scope out any problems that lie ahead. Dino tries to prevent Tobey from getting to the West Coast by putting a bounty on his head, but despite interventions by teams of truckers trying to stop him, he secures s a spot in the race with the help of Anita, who finally sees the light about Dino. The fact that the highway police try ineffectually to halt the De Leon brings a final orgy of smashed cars and retribution though, in the obligatory vocabulary of these sorts of movies, the hero ultimately proves unable to jettison his innate virtue for mere vengeance.
Director-editor Scott Waugh, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut and co-editor Paul Rubell prove capable of handling the race action—which mostly involves sleek cars but occasionally inserts other vehicles and aircraft into the mix—with dexterity. One can admire their skill even while recoiling at the extreme recklessness that viewers are asked to consider somehow heroic, which puts innocent bystanders on highways and city streets in grave danger so that Tobey can demonstrate his skill at evasion at high speed. Of course, it’s all intended as harmless, comic-book fun, but it ceases to be very amusing when put into such hyper-realistic terms as it is here, and you begin to think of all these folk as psychotic in their pursuit of thrills. At least NASCAR drivers put only themselves at risk—except for the occasional spectator, who after all chooses to position himself in harm’s way, too. Apart from that, moreover, it’s undeniable that “Need for Speed,” coming so soon after Paul Walker’s death, is rather tasteless in its glorification of this kind of road behavior.
It’s also unarguable that the picture is inordinately dumb from a purely narrative standpoint. The contrast between Tobey, the noble, homespun grease monkey and Dino, the sneering, rich-boy poseur, is drawn with ridiculous italics, and the stock characters aren’t helped by Paul’s boring presence and Cooper’s overwrought viciousness. It’s simply impossible to fathom the motivation behind Anita, which perhaps explains why Johnson plays her as being in a haze whenever she appears; by contrast Gilbertson represents such gee-whiz exuberance that you know from his first appearance that he’s the designated D.O.A. driver. As is perhaps appropriate given the plot, the comic-relief trio of Malek, Rodriguez and Mescudi gets tiresome very fast—especially Mescudi, whose stereotypical wheeler-dealer performance is almost as maniacally over-the-top as Keaton’s. The only one to emerge from the wreckage without a scratch (in terms of performance, not what happens to her character) is Potts, as the sexy gal who turns out to be more knowledgeable about transmissions and pluckier in times of danger than anyone expects. Maybe it’s just the accent that allows her to remain virtually unscathed in such circumstances.
On a technical level “Need for Speed” is proficient, with special kudos to the stuntmen coordinated by Lance Gilbert and the effects team, who work to simulate in live-action terms the effect of the video games. But Waugh and Rubell err terribly in forgetting the message of their own title, permitting the movie to drag on long beyond the two-hour mark. The B-movie race-car pictures of the fifties always crossed the finish line at ninety minutes tops; this one feels almost as long as one of those NASCAR races that seem to go on interminably. Seeking to avoid that flaw, this review now ends.