Need for Speed straddles the line between a fun, full-throttled ode to reckless car classics and a relentlessly cheesy redemption tale that has all the nuance and intelligence of the video game it is adapted from. It also marks the first leading big-screen turn for Aaron Paul – unless you count his terrific work in the little-seen Smashed. The Breaking Bad actor is magnetic as the beleaguered, blue-collar protagonist who likes to zoom through city avenues in his Gran Torino. However, a limp and ludicrous screenplay ensures that Need for Speed is a bumpy road that not even the smoothest actor or director could make through without lending their careers a scratch.
Paul plays Tobey Marshall, the lone descendent in a family with an established racing legacy, although he does not quite have the prowess to race in the big leagues. Instead, Tobey works as a mechanic at a garage owned by his late father. During the weekends in Mt. Kisco, he and his collection of car enthusiast pals bolt through the small town streets in revved-up sports cars, suspiciously avoiding the police and any complaints from locals. One of Tobey’s rivals, rich racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), offers him and his mechanic friends $500,000 to work on a Mustang unfinished by automaker Carroll Shelby at the time of the his death. For Tobey, who owes a loan in the wake of his dad’s recent death, the offer is too good to pass up.
Tobey soon regrets taking the offer though after heading out to drag race on the highway with his good friend Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) and Dino. The three racers turn the Interstate into the Autobahn. Approaching the finish line, Dino recklessly swipes Pete’s car, making it flip off a bridge and killing Tobey’s friend instantly. Dino avoids prison time, testifying that he was not drag racing at the time – even though the cars they were driving belonged to him and hundreds of other drivers witnessed the dangerous speeding across the Interstate. With Dino covering up his involvement and Tobey the only one able to place him at the scene, the protagonist is wrongly convicted for Pete’s death and sent to prison.
Years later, Tobey leaves jail and decides to skip parole in order to avenge his friend’s death by facing off against Dino in a high-stakes race in California. In the passenger’s seat is exotic car enthusiast Julia (Imogen Poots), who resists going all doe-eyed for Tobey and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the components under the hood.
Paul uses his cocksure charm and steely glare to the film’s benefit, the kind that made him such a loose, fiery cannon as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad. He brings a gravitas of cool to the car-crazed racing wannabe; however, the intensity he offers in sadder, more reflective moments clashes with the dumb, inane spectacle that fills up the latter two thirds of Need for Speed.
While a screenplay for a film adapted from a popular video game property does not need to approach any level of Chekhovian realism, its preposterousness should not distract from the flash and fury of the racing sequences. Scribe George Gatins (making his screenwriting debut, with brother John of Flight fame getting a story credit) fills the story with contrivances and conveniences. He wastes precious time with a clan of supporting characters hoping to fill the producer’s quotas for a multi-ethnic cast unblemished enough for magazines and TV appearances. One of them, Rami Malek, makes a spectacle of his decision to join newly released ex-con Tobey on his trip to California by quitting his six-figure job, stripping down defiantly to nothing and walking out of the building nude for some unexplained reason. Perhaps it’s to give teenage girls in the audience a titter or two?
Another, Scott Mescudi – better known as rapper Kid Cudi – has a spark of screen presence as Benny, the security for Tobey and his clan. Benny has a piloting license and hovers over the neighbourhood his friends drag race through to let them know if there are obstacles, such as police, coming ahead. As slick as Mescudi is in the role, it is increasingly hard to roll with his character’s luck (at one point, Benny manages to trick a member of the Air Force into lending him a helicopter). Michael Keaton also pops up as a suave radio host who organizes the extreme supercar race in California. With a gnarly voice that has hints of Beetlejuice’s eccentricity, the actor is a momentarily amusing distraction from the dim-witted chaos happening in the main plot.
Director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) keeps the action entertaining and easy to follow, a rarity in today’s chaotic world where some filmmakers are under the impression that excitement comes from a barrage of edits. Waugh understands that less tampering with the image – longer takes, less CGI, limited camera movement to ensure we always knows from whose perspective we are seeing the image and which car they are driving – is the key to clarity and coherence, and thus energy and momentum. Waugh also resists the urge to over-rely on swivelling the camera to the point-of-view of the racers as they thrash down the road, cutting the film from its video game roots.
Need for Speed is Waugh’s homage to gritty car-oriented classics and there are obvious visual references to Bullitt and The French Connection, among others, splattered throughout his film. Paul is intense and cool and he comes close to the level of a Newman or McQueen, but the sloppy screenplay and clumsy pacing drag down the excitement. There is also no reason that a film with such a slim plot and flat characters needs to be more than two hours. It takes close to 45 minutes for Need For Speed to hit its first major plot turn, clogging the momentum significantly.
Furthermore, the problems with the script extend to the characters’ moronic decision-making. Tobey likes to put himself into a plethora of reckless, life-and-death scenarios, even though Pete’s murder from drag racing is so fresh in his mind. In addition, a curiously absent police force finally gets screen time when Tobey revs his Mustang’s engine to the extent that he gets a noise complaint. Then, he draws more attention from the authorities by ditching the cop and driving with absurd recklessness – just moments after he was let go from prison and is still on parole. Julia is also fine with putting her life in the hands of an unhinged ex-con who has a way of getting out of mischief and into even more mischief. The characters continually do moronic things and get away without paying the consequences.
The cars may be fast, but Need for Speed is a leisurely paced action ride dragged down by dumb plotting and even dimmer characters. It is hard to dump a film meant to be a rush of adrenaline-fuelled, 900-horsepower fun, but it is even harder to ignore the plot holes that this hefty, 130-minute vehicle lumbers over.
Preposterous plotting and thin, derivative characters turn Need for Speed into a drag, despite a magnetic performance from Aaron Paul.