It’s amazing that it’s taken this long for another studio to exploit the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise with a racing movie of its own, but considering that Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed” video game series (from which the film gets its name) predates the adventures of Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Connor by several years, you can hardly blame DreamWorks for wanting a piece of the pie. Casting Aaron Paul, hot off his Emmy-winning role on “Breaking Bad,” as the leading man was a surefire way to drum up interest, but it was ultimately a wasted effort, because “Need for Speed” has so many other problems that finding the right actor should have been the least of Scott Waugh’s concerns.
Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a small-town mechanic who moonlights as an illegal street racer. When the debt starts piling up at the garage that he inherited from his late father, Tobey is handed a lifeline by former rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who hires Tobey and his crew to finish building a custom Shelby Mustang worth millions. But after Dino’s ego is bruised and he challenges Tobey to a race to prove his superiority, one of Tobey’s friends is killed in the process, landing him in prison while Dino gets away scot-free. Several years later, Tobey is released from jail and ready to exact his revenge, but in order to do so, he needs a car capable of competing in the top secret, invite-only race called the DeLeon, where he knows Dino will be. Teaming up with the gearhead daughter (Imogen Poots) of the man who purchased the Shelby, the pair embarks on a race against the clock to get from New York to San Francisco in time for the event, all while evading the various law enforcement authorities chasing them.
That’s a lot to digest for a movie about racing, and it doesn’t even include mention of the bounty that Dino puts on Tobey’s head when he learns of his intentions to race in the DeLeon, by far one of the more ridiculous events that transpire over the course of the film. In fact, the plot reaches such levels of absurdity that it’s not even worth wasting time discussing. The short and long of it is that “Need for Speed” is about one thing – fast cars – and it’s not about to let something as silly as logic get in the way of that. But unlike the “Fast and Furious” movies, which learned to embrace their ridiculous nature with a winking self-awareness, “Need for Speed” takes things a little too seriously. While it may be grounded more in reality, with former stuntman-turned-director Waugh taking a practical approach to the action sequences, the plot itself is pure fantasy.
Paul does the best he can with the material provided, but it’s a losing battle, even though he receives some good support from Poots and his onscreen pals played by Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez and Scott Mescudi. Dominic Cooper, on the other hand, is absolutely wasted as the one-dimensional villain, while Michael Keaton, who plays the manic impresario/announcer behind the DeLeon, delivers a wildly over-the-top performance that suggests he’s the only one aware of exactly what kind of film they’re making. And as if it even needed to be said, the last-minute 3D post-conversion adds absolutely nothing to the experience – an experience, mind you, that lasts a maddening 130 minutes for no justifiable reason whatsoever.
“Need for Speed” is in desperate need of a lot of things – a better script, stronger direction, better pacing – but one thing you wouldn’t think it’d be lacking is excitement. For those that miss the no-nonsense, piston-pumping street racing of the “Fast and “Furious” films, “Need for Speed” has more than its fill. But sadly, despite being packed with wall-to-wall driving sequences, most of them are pretty tame, often dragging on for too long or cutting away to needless reactions from other characters. The final set piece, in particular, has some really fantastic stunt work on display, but it’s constantly being interrupted by Keaton’s lame commentary. Gearheads will at least get some joy out of watching the assortment of beautiful cars speeding around the screen, but “Need for Speed” fails to be a worthy competitor to the “Fast and Furious” series, let alone a potential heir to the grease-streaked throne.