We can discuss how well Need for Speed works or doesn’t as a car-chase flick, a road movie, a video-game adaptation, and an action-franchise launch. But let’s get right to the only question that matters, namely: “Even knowing what we know about actors needing to work, is it kind of a bummer to see Aaron Paul’s considerable gifts put to the service of material like this?” It brings me no pleasure to report that the answer is Yeah, bitch.
Paul imbued Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman with a depth of feeling that surprised even Vince Gilligan, who’d planned to kill off the character after Season 1. Instead, Jesse became the show’s conscience and (arguably) the most tragic figure in its desert-bleak moral universe. But five seasons as the second lead on a basic-cable show doesn’t exactly pay off like the blue-meth racket, no matter how many Emmys you win (Paul has two). So here we are. In Need for Speed, a movie based on a largely plotless console racing game whose various iterations have sold more than 140 million copies, Paul does what he can with the factory-standard part of Tobey Marshall, a mechanic and street racer from small-town Mount Kisco, who puts the pedal to the metal for justice after being framed for vehicular manslaughter. But the grave affect and grumbly underacting that made him so moving on television seem a little silly in the context of this film, a Hot Wheels track with too few twists. Given a vehicle “worthy of his talents,” we’re told early on, Tobey could do great things. I guess, in that sense, this is a personal film.
Stuntman turned director Scott Waugh made his feature debut with 2012’s Act of Valor, a Navy SEAL movie starring a cast of actual Navy SEALs. The film’s action sequences had a gritty authenticity, but as actors, the SEALs served the story somewhat less heroically than they’d served our country. Need for Speed suffers from a similar credibility gap. Only the cars feel real. They have weight and presence and (mostly) obey the laws of physics. They’re the most vivid thing about the movie, and on some level the movie seems to know this. Every few minutes, some flashy new turbocharged ride whips past us — Ferraris, vintage GTOs, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, even an army of sinister SUVs, all given a gel-manicured luster by Shane Hurlbut’s hyper-crisp digital photography. I’m not much of a car guy, but at the screening I attended, the young man sitting next to me clearly was. Every time somebody opened a garage door or a hood onscreen, he let out a soft, Keanu-ish Whoa.
The most visually striking cars in the film are a trio of street-illegal, Swedish-made Koenigsegg Ageras, sculptural projectiles that look like what Luke Skywalker would have tooled around Tatooine in, had he been a rich prick. Appropriately, in Need for Speed, they belong to wealthy, creepy ex-NASCAR driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper, an English actor with the eyebrows of a malevolent Tony Curtis). After Tobey gets the better of Dino in a business deal, Dino challenges him to an impromptu race that ends with one of the Ageras in flames and Tobey on his way to jail for two years. By the time he’s paroled, he’s already hatched a plan to take revenge on Dino by defeating him in the De Leon, a secret, invitation-only road race organized by a wealthy, mysterious racing enthusiast known only as “The Monarch.”
The Monarch is played by Michael Keaton, channeling both Wolfman Jack and Beetlejuice in scenes that probably took him a day to shoot. It’s unclear how he manages to stay mysterious, given that he’s also the on-camera host of what seems to be a daily online racing chat show that anyone with a laptop seems able to access. It’s one of many plot points the movie clearly hopes we’ll be too adrenaline-drunk to rigorously analyze. It’s equally unclear why wealthy car collector Bill Ingram (Stevie Ray Dallimore) is so willing to lend Tobey — an ex-con he barely knows — the $3 million Mustang that Tobey thinks he can win the Monarch’s race with. But Ingram does lend it to him, sending his assistant Julia (Imogen Poots) to keep an eye on the car while Toby lead-foots it from upstate New York to California for the race, which starts in two days.
In the script, the Mustang is supposedly based on an unfinished car created for Ford by the late driver/designer Carroll Shelby. (It’s actually a souped-up 2014 ’Stang built for the movie by the good people at Ford, and the movie pays them back by including so many beauty shots of the “hero car” racing into the sunset that I half-expected to see a message about 0 percent financing flash onscreen.) I suppose just asking Ingram to air-freight the car directly to California would have taken too long; it would also have deprived the movie of its only genuine moments, in which this preposterous Dirty Mary Crazy Larry situation brings Julia and Tobey together. The script gives Poots even less to work with than what Paul gets — Julia morphs as needed from stereotypical one-of-the-boys car nut to stereotypical love-interest-in-jeopardy and back. But she and Paul display real chemistry on the parts of the journey when they’re not dodging state troopers. They’re the only humans with any charisma on this ride. As Tobey’s buddy and lookout pilot, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi is handed about 18 comic-relief moments too many; someone clearly thought they had a young Will Smith on their hands, but this is a conclusion unsupported by the text. The rest of Tobey’s Mount Kisco bros are about as dimensional as Manny, Moe, and Jack.
I know, I know — it’s a car-chase movie, so by talking about all these issues I’m critiquing the sides instead of the steak. The steak is perfectly prepared. The cars go fast, the cars go boom, all without the aid of green-screen or other digital cheating. (The credits name more than 150 drivers and stunt people; they deserve higher billing, as does hairstylist Frances Mathias, because even at 130 mph, Poots’s hair looks amazing.) The film has one good, newish idea about how to stage these sequences: Sometimes, when the cars flip, flop, and fly, Waugh cuts away to an HD dashboard-POV camera, so it feels like we’re rolling toward our own fiery doom on YouTube. And at least one of the big action set pieces — an impromptu demolition derby involving light trucks, a few cement mixers, and eventually an Apache helicopter — builds and builds in an impressively deranged way, as if a 4-year-old in a sandbox has taken over as stunt coordinator.
There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. At one point, Tobey even pulls the old chain-on-the-axle trick that got Richard Dreyfuss into the Pharaohs in American Graffiti. Waugh has dutifully cited the CGI-free chases in ’60s and ’70s films like The French Connection and Bullitt as key reference points; he even puts the Bullitt chase sequence up on a drive-in screen early in the film. But it wasn’t the absence of digital trickery that made those chases so real. San Franciscans love to mock the liberties the Bullitt chase scene takes with geography, but it took those liberties to make use of every native obstacle the Bay Area had to offer — its steepest hills, its sharpest curves. The French Connection did the same thing with the crowded streets under the elevated tracks that run through Brooklyn and Queens. These were movies with a sense of place and chases that couldn’t have been staged anywhere else, whereas in Need for Speed, each new locale is just another level to be unlocked and conquered.
The car movies that loom largest over this one, of course, are the six films of the billion-dollar Fast & Furious franchise, which suddenly seem like a cycle of Ibsen plays compared with this movie. Say what you will about the Fast films’ philosophical boilerplate concerning the importance of surrogate families and living your life one mile at a time — at least it’s an ethos. There’s something almost nihilistic about Need for Speed’s tunnel-vision worldview. It’s a movie about a guy who avenges a car crash by causing many, many other car crashes, whose life-and-limb toll we’re supposed to ignore. The big racing finale involves Tobey, Dino, and a bunch of other non-factorish drivers with Morning Zoo Crew names like “Johnny V” and “English Paul” and “Texas Mike” and “The Gooch,” as well as a number of police vehicles and, at one point, a big yellow school bus full of young children.
I won’t spoil whether or not this movie pays its debt to the fatalistic car-action films of the ’70s by ending with Aaron Paul wasting a bunch of kids while a Leonard Cohen song plays. Suffice it to say that the race eventually presents Tobey with an opportunity to prove himself to be not only the better driver but also the better man. The movie’s message, apart from “Do not attempt to re-create these maneuvers,” is that Goofus leaves people to die when he runs them off the road during an illegal street race and Gallant does not. But by that point in the scene, we’ve already watched countless other cars turned into John Chamberlain sculptures so that Tobey can have his redemption. Aren’t there people in those cars, too? Who mourns for the Gooch? If Texas Mike rolls his McLaren, does he not bleed?