Early into Need for Speed, there’s a scene that sets the tone for the whole movie. The hero of the piece, Tobey Marshall (played by Aaron Paul), has a meeting with his pals at a drive-in movie theater. What takes place during the scene isn’t important, but the setting definitely is: showing on the outdoor screen is Bullitt, the Steve McQueen classic that offered a plot most don’t remember but San Francisco car chases that remain the stuff of legend. This movie is tipping its hat to the great vroom-vroom, bash n’crash classics of the past and announces itself as a souped-up, tricked-out B-movie.
The title, I’ve been informed, comes not from a conversation shared by our great American cinematic philosophers, Maverick and Goose, but from a video game. According to one of my gamer buddies, the Need for Speed games are light on plot and heavy on car-jacking and squealing tires. If that’s the case, then the movie adaptation is a spot-on facsimile.
Paul’s Tobey owns a local auto shop that’s in need of cash flow and decides, “just one time,” to do a job for his nemesis. As played by Dominic Cooper, Dino Brewster is so obviously villainous in appearance, demeanor and taste (even his house looks like bad news), it’s to no one’s surprise but Tobey’s that the job goes sour. Years later, Tobey has revenge on his mind and embarks on a cross-country race that will lead to the inevitable re-match behind the wheel with Dino. Yes, that last sentence is full of cornball clichés and so is the movie.
When the film’s narrative gear is in neutral and the characters are conversing, we have to put up with dialogue that sounds re-worked from bad, late-60s biker movies. It wouldn’t help if the main characters were instead played by Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Ludacris and Dwayne Johnson. The story, character dynamics and tough guy banter is like a stale, sun-burnt air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror. Thankfully, when the characters are behind the wheel, the movie thrills.
The said-to-be CGI-free car chases and crashes are free of shaky-cam confusion. Instead, the open road chases have a clean, smooth and fierce presentation reminiscent of the masterful set-pieces found in films by John Frankenheimer and William Friedkin. The Fast and Furious movies are more appealingly trashy but overly busy. This screenplay may have some loose lug nuts but the editing, sound effects and, especially, cinematography are state of the art.
If Paul becomes a big movie star, it won’t be due to this film. His work on TV’s Breaking Bad was extraordinary. Here, he’s in service of a stunt-driven movie. The best that can be said about his work here is that he gives off such intensity, even during the silliest scenes, he proves he can carry a movie. If only his first starring role offered more substance than flash. Michael Keaton, likewise, does more for the movie than it does for him: playing a pirate DJ for illegal street racers, Keaton entertains by overacting wildly and making all of his lines sound improvised.
A passenger seat romance between Paul and Imogen Poots grew on me and is the closest the movie has to an emotional center. For speed freaks who love these kind of movies, it rates pretty high: while better than Torque, Tokyo Drift and Gone in Sixty Seconds, it isn’t as great as Ronin and doesn’t top the fourth and fifth Fast and Furious installments. Still, this gorgeously shot guilty pleasure will have you clutching your seat rest.
Score: *** (1-5 Star Scale)