Film Review: Need for Speed

Action-drama of two street-racing rivals looks great, and Aaron Paul emerges a star. But in terms of story logic and dialogue, 'Need for Speed' runs out of gas.

Since it's based on a series of videogames, one might not expect Need for Speed to be a great movie any more than one might expect that of, oh, say, The Lego Movie, which is based on nothing more promising than interlocking blocks. Need for Speed, it turns out, is no Lego Movie.

A homage to such cross-country race/chase movies as Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and The Cannonball Run (1981), Need for Speed can also trace its roots to any Hollywood Golden Age movie about a bunch of spunky kids getting together and beating the big guys at their own game. This being the 2010s, they're spunky in a grim and glowering way, but all the elements are here. Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a local legend in Mount Kisco, NY, a street racer who could've gone pro but stayed behind to help his dad run the family mechanics garage. Meanwhile, fellow hometown boy Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) has become a Formula One champ—even though, hey, everybody knows Tobey could take him in a fair race.

The dark-haired Dino does not, of course, play fair, and after tragedy befalls Tobey during an illegal street race—a tragedy caused by boo-hiss Dino, natch, whose connections get him off scot-free—things get as ugly as the automobiles are beautiful. Borrowing a souped-up Mustang from an exotic-car collector who insists his assistant Julia (Imogen Poots) go along to make sure nothing happens to it—yeah, good luck with that—Tobey takes off for the De Leon, an underground race conducted by reclusive impresario The Monarch (Michael Keaton). Trouble is, Tobey's only got 45 hours to get cross-country from Mount Kisco to San Francisco, and has to wrangle an invite to the race on the way.

Along for the ride are his crew—mechanics Joe (Ramón Rodríguez) and Finn (Rami Malek, or as I call him, Young Benicio del Toro), and his overhead traffic-spotter, Benny (rapper Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi). The fact that the mechanics, in their truck, somehow keep up or even arrive ahead of the hot-dogging Tobey in his 200mph machine is just one of the many check-your-brain-at-the-door aspects, as is the way Benny just steals small airplanes and helicopters along the way as if he were picking up magazines at a newsstand. Underneath it all, of course, is the fact that in the real world, innocent-bystander drivers get killed and maimed by illegal street racers, so it's hard to drum up sympathy for the movie's duels of honor.

Still, the on-location American panorama is stunningly shot, and the cars are so beautiful you want to cry. The dialogue does that, too, but for a different reason. "That's what this is really about then, isn't it?" goes one utterance, in case you didn't get the subtext, or know the word subtext. If that weren't clear enough, "This ain't just about racing."

For all that, Need for Speed does have moments of old-movie charm—you've got to love a world where kids get together at a drive-in to watch Steve McQueen in 1968’s Bullitt—and Aaron Paul, despite playing another blue-collar character like his now-immortal Jesse Pinkman on TV's "Breaking Bad," creates someone completely different here: He makes you forget Jesse and see only Tobey. Whatever else its virtues and flaws, Need for Speed is—if we may put it this way—a star vehicle.