Need for Speed (2014)
130 min., rated PG-13.
The theoretical draw of any gearhead flick is the series of can-you-top-this car chases. Whether we all wanted all of them or not, the "The Fast and the Furious" franchise has proven to get the action right, now that a seventh movie is already in post-production. For drive-in fare, they are fun and, in their favor, have begun to embrace how deliriously over-the-top they are. "Need for Speed," on the other hand, is based on the popular EA Sports video game, so the revenge/redemption story threading the racing scenes together is even more glaringly flimsy. It's also full of irresponsible, criminal anti-heroes who make too many reckless, cavalier choices and become harder to root for when the stakes are as important as measuring dicks. If one is willing to just split the difference and take the frivolous lunkheadedness for what it is, the viewer can get a few junky, anything-goes thrills out of the screenwriting wreckage.
"Need for Speed" seems like the kind of movie an actor would make before winning Emmy Awards for his breakthrough role, but the wild-eyed Aaron Paul, post-"Breaking Bad," headlines as Tobey Marshall, a blue-collar mechanic and racer from Mt. Kisco, N.Y., who's about to lose his late father's auto shop. In a last-ditch effort to save the garage, he takes an offer from slick, wealthy ex-NASCAR driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) to rebuild a rare Ford Shelby Mustang in exchange for a quarter of the car's $2 million selling price. Tobey and his posse of friends, Benny 'Maverick' (Scott 'Kid Cudi' Mescudi), Joe (Ramón Rodriguez), Finn (Rami Malek) and Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), get it done and are approached at an auction by savvy British car dealer Julia (Imogen Poots) who offers to buy it for $3 million if the Mustang can go over 230 mph. Tobey gets it even higher and when challenged by Dino in a three-way race, Dino tags Pete's car, which then flips and bursts into flames. Dino leaves the scene though, and Tobey is the only witness who could place Dino there, so our hero gets thrown in jail. Two years later, Tobey jumps his parole in New York to right a wrong by taking on Dino in the De Leon street race in San Francisco. With Julia, Tobey goes on the run with only two days to get across the country to Dino, while Dino already has a bounty on Tobey's head. Of course, there's no other way to settle the score than a race.
Working from the first script by George Gatins (who created the story with his brother John), stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh (2012's "Act of Valor," which gets a cameo on a DVD rack in a truck stop) hits all the necessary plot points to advance the story, even if that means ensnaring his actors in dumb writing that only halts human reasonability. Tobey is a maniac on the road and clearly out to save his own skin, no matter how many innocent strangers have their vehicles flipped because of him. Even a homeless man nearly gets run over, while his shopping cart of collected cans gets hit and thrown. The film is naïve, or just stupid, to think racing to a race, while putting some strangers in the hospital, is worth bringing the real man to justice for the death of Tobey's friend. Also, it's pretty amusing that Tobey and Julia waste no time to get to California in less than two days by having Joe and Finn dangerously help them refuel without stopping. Since this is a racing movie, it would be out of the question to have Tobey take a flight to the race. Waugh's main goal, though, is striving for adrenaline out of the spills and earns it most of the time when the characters aren't given too much time on land. Forgoing assistance of CGI and getting mileage (no pun intended) out of behind-the-wheel POV shots, the race sequences and practical stunts are tremulous and genuinely exciting. We feel the speed, sometimes to a nervous degree, especially during a chilling crash on a bridge. Unlike the action sequences in 2013's "Getaway," which also prided itself on using very little CGI and actually crashing vehicles, the ones in "Need for Speed" don't manufacture high-octane excitement with shaky handheld camerawork and incoherent editing but resist those lazy choices.
Aaron Paul has a simmering, strong-and-silent intensity as the jerky, gruff-voiced Tobey, but as written, the role doesn't seem to ask much else from him, nor is he given that interesting of an arc. Imogen Poots is a spunky delight, going along for the ride as Julia, and she and Paul do share an easy, amusing back-and-forth, especially when Tobey tries distracting Julia from her fear of heights. Dominic Cooper is cowardly and just despicable enough as Dino, while Scott 'Kid Cudi' Mescudi and Rami Malek resort to mugging as Benny 'Maverick' and Finn who, respectively, somehow has so many connections to steal helicoptors from a traffic news reporter and the military to act as Tobey's eagle eye and quits his soul-sucking office job by stripping off all of his clothes. Lastly, Michael Keaton is all on his own as Monarch, as if Beetlejuice were a reclusive commentator for an "underground" supercar racing podcast who wore sporty shades. He didn't have to be here, as the hyperactive Monarch shouts inane chestnuts, like "Racers should race and cops should eat donuts."
"Need for Speed" runs about thirty minutes too long and could have been easily trimmed of some of the bloat, but the pairing of Paul and Poots does raise the non-racing scenes a few notches. "Torque," this wishes, and there's even homage paid to Steve McQueen's 1968 chase picture "Bullitt" playing at a drive-in. Affection can take precedence over originality, so while it may not add anything extremely novel to the fray of drag racing, "Need for Speed" has practicality on its side and makes those car scenes count. The rest of the film certainly gets the job done if you don't mind putting your brain in neutral rather than fueling it.
Grade: C +