With the soul of a Maserati trapped in the body of a Ford Pinto, Need for Speed grinds its gears when it should be roaring down the road.
Adapted from the 20-year-old Electronic Arts video game franchise of the same name (where players race all manner of exotic vehicles, in fairly realistic fashion), the high-octane film cribs liberally from its cinematic predecessors — the seminal car chase thriller Bullitt is cited, explicitly, early and often — but, in failing to beef up its digital origins, adds up to little more than exhaust fumes.
Aaron Paul stars as mechanic and racing whiz Tobey Marshall, in Paul’s first major, post- Breaking Bad role.
Tobey has a knack for milking the most out of cars, and racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) wants him to help restore a mythical Shelby Mustang. Aided by his rag-tag team, including Benny (Scott Mescudi), Finn (Rami Malek) and Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), Tobey and Dino strike a deal with a wealthy buyer to sell the car, which leads to a fateful afternoon spent racing high-end automobiles.
The ensuing tragedy lands Tobey in prison for two years, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Once freed, Tobey immediately sets his sights on revenge and speeds cross-country, with a sexy blonde in tow (Imogen Poots), to tangle with Dino, who wastes little time putting a bounty on his former partner’s head.
Watching over all of this is the Monarch (Michael Keaton) — a talk radio host, of sorts, offering commentary on the drivers’ skills and the rich benefactor of a legendary race known as the DeLeon, which Tobey is desperate to enter and win, claiming a prize cache of top-of-the-line cars.
If it all sounds like chaos, that’s effectively how Need for Speed unfolds.
Director Scott Waugh, working from a screenplay by George Gatins, makes the odd choice to fuse elements from the games (the first-person point of view while racing; Monarch’s absurdly omniscient broadcast capabilities) with a conventional narrative, and the end result is disjointed.
It’s like trying to watch a movie and play a video game at the same time, while being satisfied by neither.
Whatever pathos the filmmakers hoped Tobey’s story of betrayal and revenge would contain is wasted by a series of gorgeously filmed but totally empty set pieces, focused more on the gleaming, growling cars than those inside them.
That said, Waugh embraced an analog aesthetic, and the film is blessedly free of CGI-enhanced sequences, grounding Need for Speed in a world where metal shreds, tires go flying and explosions seem genuine, rather than painted in.
As in other films of this “stripe (“The Fast and the Furious” franchise), the humans are secondary to the machines, although none of the roles is written with any particular nuance. Aaron Paul does here what he did for seven seasons on Breaking Bad — toggle between seething and sobbing, while throwing in some murderous stares for good measure — making him seem very one-note.
The rest of the cast — Cooper, Poots, Mescudi and Malek — hardly registers, although Poots gamely tries to inject some life into her thankless role as co-pilot and love interest. Cooper, in particular, seems embarrassed by what’s coming out of his mouth, and hardly seems interested by the time the climax rolls around.
Keaton, however, has a ball as Monarch, riffing on the cars and their drivers and generally embracing the role of weirdo billionaire.
If anyone on Need for Speed had looked under the hood, the under-powered screenplay would’ve been evident.
But rather than fine-tune the narrative engine, the filmmakers hit the gas with not much more in the tank than sumptuously photographed car porn, robbing what could have been a high-toned B-movie of any punch.
Put it this way: Moviegoers could have been enjoyed a thrilling, emotionally charged ride, but instead, they were sold a lifeless lemon.