Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) might be one of the best street car racers in the country, but he isn’t particularly lucky.
His car shop is failing. His ex-girlfriend Anita (Dakota Johnson) is now with a rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). And then he’s wrongly charged with manslaughter after a friend is killed by Dino in a high-speed street race.
And that’s just in the first half-hour of Need For Speed, a The Fast and the Furious clone with expensive sports cars and the Emmy-winning co-star of Breaking Bad as its lead.
Based on the exceedingly popular video game series from Electronic Arts, Need for Speed is car porn. And just like with adult films, its B-movie plot and clumsy dialogue only get in the way of what everyone wants to see: dangerous high-speed racing and violent crashes.
The film was written by George Gatins, based on a story from him and his brother John (an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Flight), who insist on dragging character drama into a film in which race cars are the real stars.
It starts with old-fashioned revenge.
After serving two years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Tobey sets out to reclaim justice for his dead buddy and for himself by beating Dino in an annual and illegal underground car race known as the De Leon, which is set up and run by the mysterious Monarch (Michael Keaton displaying some of his old manic charm).
Tobey has the support of his racing team, wisecracking but lovable gearheads who serve as comic relief, one of many traits Need for Speed borrows from The Fast and The Furious franchise. But merely winning the race and righting the wrong would be too easy. We need character-building obstacles in Tobey’s path, which also happen to deliver on the film’s title: the necessity of his racing a one-of-a-kind Shelby Mustang from New York to San Francisco in a little more than two days to compete in the race. His mission comes at the price of demolished police cars and wrecked pedestrian vehicles as Tobey zips through the crowded highways and city streets. This includes a stop in Detroit, in which he piles up the property damage in a city already strapped for cash.
Accompanying him is unwelcomed British passenger Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots). She’s the sarcastic financial advisor for a wealthy American businessman who’s loaning the Shelby to Tobey to compete in De Leon. In return, the car’s owner gets to add to his collection by keeping most of the winnings from the race: The million-dollar-plus cars that competed and lost in the event and are awarded as the winner-takes-all jackpot prize. She’s there to make sure Tobey takes care of the car and crosses the finish line first.
Directed by Scott Waugh.
Written by George and John Gatins.
A Touchstone/Dreamworks release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbres, and Levis Commons.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity, and crude language.
Running time: 130 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★
Cast: Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, and Michael Keaton.
According to Hollywood’s 10 Commandments of Film, having an attractive man and woman in such close proximity for such a long stretch must lead to romance. And so, despite their differences, Julia and Tobey begin to bond on their high-speed road trip, a turning point that occurs after Julia assists with a dangerous mid-drive refuel of the Shelby as its cruises along a highway. Or perhaps this moment comes while she and Tobey stare at each other rather than the ground hundreds of feet below as their car — with them still in it — is dangled over a canyon by a transport helicopter flying them to safety.
Paul and Poots make for enjoyable leads and their front-seat banter never grows old. But there isn’t much for them to do other than crack wise at each other and Tobey’s team, and then swerve to avoid an accident. And by the time they finally get to De Leon — more than 90 minutes later — the half-hour-too-long film is running on fumes, offering a race that is only slightly more engaging than anything we’ve already seen.
Paul is better than this script, as is most of the cast. Although, given the likely box-office success of Need for Speed, they’re all likely to return for the inevitable sequels.
And while it probably will have wide appeal to gamers, Need for Speed isn’t Fast and Furious.
For novelty, the fueling and aerial stunts are the best Need for Speed can muster, as director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) stays mostly conservative with the street action — the high-speed mayhem adhering to real-world physics more often than it doesn’t — and relies on impressive camera work to bolster the thrills. While his approach might be slightly more believable to moviegoers, it’s also significantly less spectacular than The Fast and the Furious films, which have taken the racing genre to new heights with increasingly wild, inventive, and stylish stunts — absurd as they may be. The smash-’em-up tank sequence alone from Fast & Furious 6 is more exhilarating than the whole of Need for Speed’s races.
It’s also arguable that such crazed races and chases and the souped-up cars involved in them are the true main characters of the Fast and Furious films. It’s a strategy its film rival reverses. As a result, Need for Speed’s on-the-road action isn’t as fast and certainly isn’t as furious. And it’s also not as much delirious fun.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.