“Need for Speed” is a piece of auto-collision pornography that weighs down its car-flip-and-massive-fireball money shots with a preposterous plot involving vehicular manslaughter vengeance, a road trip that’s basically one long police chase and an illegal drag race orchestrated by Michael Keaton.
Yes, that’s one way to describe it. “Need for Speed” is also: a video game adapted to a bloated motion picture that’s designed to sell more video games; an excessively long commercial for the Ford Mustang; a blatant bid to kick-start another lucrative franchise in the same rubber-burning spirit as the “Fast & Furious” series; absolute proof that Aaron Paul, this film’s star, should think more carefully about his post-“Breaking Bad” career choices.
Paul, the Emmy Award-winning portrayer of “Yo” master Jesse Pinkman, plays Tobey Marshall, skilled racer and mechanic from Mount Kisco, N.Y., which, within the context of this film, functions as the live-action equivalent of Radiator Springs in Pixar’s “Cars.” It’s a small, quaint blue-collar town with lots of vintage vehicles equipped to handle a night of intense drag racing.
An encounter on one such night with Tobey’s arch rival, former professional racer and still professional dirtbag Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), leads to a dangerous game of sports-car chicken that ends in a terrible accident. As a result, Tobey serves two years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Once released, he becomes hellbent on snagging an invitation to the De Leon, an elite underground battle for speed supremacy organized by a wealthy racing enthusiast known as the Monarch (Keaton). There, the embittered Tobey hopes to again face Dino and settle their lingering score.
If that sounds like a lot of story to cover, it is, especially considering that Tobey also has to sort out romantic issues with two love interests — Anita (Dakota Johnson), an ex who’s now involved with Dino, and Julia (Imogen Poots), a British car broker who becomes Tobey’s wingwoman during his cross-country journey to the De Leon — as well as interact with the auto-body-shop buddies who save him from peril in increasingly unbelievable ways.
Of course, most people won’t come to “Need for Speed” in search of a compelling narrative. They’ll come to fawn over shiny Mustangs, Lamborghinis and GTA Spanos, and to gasp when those gorgeous works of vehicular art dodge oncoming traffic, pirouette in midair and smash violently into police cars engaged in hot pursuit. On those metrics, “Need for Speed” satisfies at times, but even the more jaw-dropping camera angles and shocking smash-ups start to feel redundant after director Scott Waugh revisits them for the third or fourth time.
On the acting front, it’s obvious why Paul got cast as the lead: He possesses a certain charismatic intensity, as well as a seductively low voice that sounds like a high-performance engine perpetually revving. But with a script that forces him to utter lines such as “We’ll settle this behind the wheel,” this is hardly the part that will establish him as a viable leading man.
Even Keaton, normally the ideal choice to play an unhinged wild-card type, has a hard time fitting into this mess of a movie. As the mysterious, reclusive Monarch, his role consists entirely of monologues filled with race-day exposition and zero genuine fun.
And that, right there, is “Need for Speed’s” most crucial flaw: It wants its audience to feel the thrill that comes from slamming on the gas pedal with reckless abandon. But most moviegoers will feel like they’re chugging along, eager to finally pump the brakes on this overheated, uninspired attempt at a cinematic rush.
Chaney is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language. 130 minutes.