Need For Speed has a plot that's paper-thin, and dialogue that rarely rises above the level of "functional," but it serves as an effective leading man vehicle for star Aaron Paul. More than that, the mid-budget adaptation of Electronic Arts' blockbuster video game series (now celebrating its 20th year on the roadways) offers up some of the most elaborate, well-staged stunt driving I've ever seen. For that, I'm willing to let it slide with a warning.
Directed by veteran stunt coordinator Scott Waugh (Act of Valor), Need For Speed casts Paul as troubled street racer Tobey Marshall, an ex-con who was (naturally) framed after a racing fatality. Following his release, Marshall and his motley pit crew (Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) transport a custom Mustang from New Jersey to California in hopes of entering a secret race organized by the mysterious "Monarch" (Michael Keaton), and having a long-saught reckoning with boo-hiss baddie Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who he blames for landing him in prison in the pokey.
What do you say about a movie like this? It seems like any attempt to offer a critique on the basis of the perfunctory story (by George and John Gatins) and workmanlike performances is sort of missing the forest for the trees. Like a Kung Fu movie, the story and script are really just the thinnest of cartilage to string together action scenes, and like a Kung Fu movie, the ultimate qualitative measure rests on how memorable those action scenes end up. On that front, while I'm no expert on how closely it hews to its pixelated predecessor, as a purely cinematic experience it doesn't disappoint.
Now, when it comes to madcap racing antics on the big screen, Universal's road-tested Fast & Furious franchise has become the titan of the tarmac, but where this project finds distinction is in how Waugh went out of his way to avoid going the CGI route, staging all of his driving action practically. Now, don't get me wrong, I dig the Fast flicks for the clever, crackpot ways it manages to reinvent itself with every outing, but there's also no doubt that big chunks of that series' action real estate resides in the central cortex of a computer.
Not so with Need For Speed, where Waugh employed real cars, on real roads, taking real risks, ending up in real wrecks. And oh, what a difference it makes. There's a deliciously palatable, deliriously tangible feel to the racing stuff that's impossible not to find enveloping, and which draws attention to itself by virtue of how rare a thing it's become. Beginning with an early homage to Bullitt, and with several other nods to famous driving pics nested in along the way, it's clear that this is meant to play as both homage to and continuation of that lustrous lineage.
Even though you don't come to a film like this for the performances, I do think Paul comfortably takes the wheel after several years riding shotgun with Bryan Cranston. I also liked the rest of the cast, including requisite love interest Imogen Poots and Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi as Marshall's ever-present eye-in-the-sky/comic relief. Cooper especially gets to burnish his "entitled douchebag" credentials as the sleazy Dino. That said, this is the second time in as many months that the great Michael Keaton has been underutilized in an underwritten role (it sort of feels like they got all his filming done in an afternoon).
While I doubt there's enough gas in the tank to mount a franchise that can compete with Fast & Furious (much less match the video games' distance record), Need For Speed is still a satisfying bit of here-and-gone sensory stimulation that delivers exactly the kind of high-octane, high-velocity thrills promised by the title. It's fun, it's fast, and it's fine. B-
To hear highlights from my panel interview with director Scott Waugh and star Aaron Paul, don't miss the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast. Download at the link, or stream it below: