Aaron Paul (best known as Jessie on the recently concluded Breaking Bad) has piercing blue eyes, a wide forehead topped with a shock of slick brown hair, and a gruff monotone. He looks like he could be the son James Caan didn’t know he had (notwithstanding Buddy the Elf), which makes him as fit as any young stud to play a troubled car mechanic-turned-federal fugitive in NEED FOR SPEED.
Toby Marshall (Paul) is a reputable small-town grease monkey running his recently-deceased father’s chop shop. He and his crew are good under the hood, but even better at performing customized car upgrades and racing rivals on weekends. One such contest is prefaced by a nighttime rendezvous outside a drive-in theater, where naturally everyone’s watching the extended—and iconic—car chase from the 1968 Steve McQueen thriller, BULLITT. The ’50s-ish sequence smacks of GREASE and THE OUTSIDERS; you expect Fonzie to pull up on his motorcycle. Screenwriter George Gatins casts Toby’s close-knit group as a bunch of likeable, down-home, jeans and T-shirt wearing red-blooded American boys with a love for fast women and even faster automobiles.
Unfortunately, each spends the rest of the 130-minute adventure trying to act his (or her) way out of their archetypes. It’s an uphill battle all around.
Marshall Motors is in debt, so Toby relents to a one-off custom job on a magnificent Ford Mustang GT for nemesis car dealer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Dino assures Toby and the guys he just wants to make peace, but Toby’s still mad at the jerk for stealing his girl, Anita (Dakota Johnson). Oddly enough, it’s Anita’s little brother, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), who convinces brooding Toby to modify the already-glorious GT into a highway hellhound that tops 230mph on a test track.
Dino’s delighted, as is his buyer—pretty English ingénue Julia (Imogen Peets)—but he can’t help talking trash, and within minutes browbeats Toby into racing him for the GT’s $2 million price tag. If Toby loses, he forfeits his 20% cut and can kiss his father’s garage goodbye. If he wins, hey, it’s easy sailing hereafter. Dino even tips the odds in Toby’s favor. He also furnishes the vehicles: Sleek, road-hugging custom Euro jobs owned by a rich uncle.
But the race is a disaster that leaves one man dead. It’s Dino’s fault, but he flees. Toby’s arrested for manslaughter and spends the next two years in an orange jumpsuit.
Toby gets a shot at redemption (and revenge) right outside the prison gates: Sympathetic Julia lets him pit the tricked-out GT against Dino in the Deleon, a super-secret annual race hosted by an underground car nut called The Monarch (Michael Keaton). Toby could claim the race’s multimillion-dollar purse from reigning champ Dino, buy back the family garage, and earn major bragging rights. He might even be able to prove his innocence and out Dino to the authorities. Julia insists on going with him.
They have 42 hours to pilot the GT from New York to California and make Monarch’s entry deadline. Toby’s in violation of parole the instant he crosses the state line.
It doesn’t take long for Toby’s noisemaking road-rocket to rouse the attention of police and highway patrol in every state, especially after a harrowing rush hour drag-race through downtown Detroit. Fortunately, his old mechanic friends literally have his back: Joe (Ramon Rodriguez) and Finn (Rami Malek) tail the GT, warding off cop cars and fueling the still-moving Mustang from a tow-truck so Toby won’t have to stop as often. Overhead, Benny (Scott Mescudi) is Toby’s eye-in-the-sky, spewing radio traffic updates and bad jokes from his Cessna (and other assorted “borrowed” aircraft).
Video clips of Toby’s jaw-dropping Motor City rampage go viral instantly. Intrigued, Monarch chats up Toby’s coast-to-coast quest on his personal racing podcast. When Dino gets wind of Toby’s crusade, he dispatches ROAD WARRIOR-like thugs in hypersonic Humvees to intercept, lest his past crimes be exposed.
We’d love to say the stakes are higher, but they aren’t. Based on the long-running video game series by Electronic Arts, the vacuous, noisy NEED FOR SPEED can be boiled down to one man’s high-velocity vindication. The fate of the world—or any single city—does not hang in the balance. There is no ransom. Nobody’s being held hostage. Should Toby fail, he’ll just have to (gasp) get a real job (perhaps working for Julie) and deal with Dino another day. One wonders why Toby’s so angry to begin with; the racers know the risks every time they get behind the wheel. And they certainly don’t think twice about jeopardizing pedestrians, school buses, and homeless people with shopping carts when putting pedal to metal. It’s tough sympathizing with an antihero who endangers everyone between the Big Apple and The City of Angels with his righteousness (the police only add to the peril with their vain pursuits).
Still, we warm to Toby over the trip and accept the prospect of romance with Julia, who—she repeatedly, eye-rollingly asserts—is more than a flashy British dame in heels. Paul’s companions are fun, particularly Malek’s goofy Finn, who walks out on his 9-to-5 cubicle job butt-naked. Sadly, Mescudi plays Benny as a token rapper-movie dude; he even drops words like “homey” and “respect.” [We later learned Mescudi is, in fact, Cleveland-bred mixtape-maestro Kid Cudi.] Fortunately, many of Benny’s hip-hop traits are supplanted along the way by elements of his military background, and he winds up delivering some of the film’s biggest laughs, even from behind bars.
We’re told early on Monarch has heart problems. This tidbit goes nowhere, but kinetic Keaton’s rants render the glycerin pill-popper an effective Greek chorus of comic relief.
“Racers should race,” he huffs. “Cops should eat donuts.”
Monarch doesn’t leave his office hideout or share screen time with anyone. Keaton probably shot all his scenes in a single afternoon. It doesn’t matter; his energy is infectious.
The humorous highway callbacks to DUKES OF HAZZARD, CANNONBALL RUN and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT are inescapable, but Plasticine people and their self-imposed deadlines aren’t really the point of all this. A featherweight FAST AND FURIOUS, NEED FOR SPEED is car porn—a two-hour high-definition demo for shiny cars with exotic names that might actually mean something to auto buffs (Lamborghini Gallardo LP 570-4 Super Trofeo, Porsche Carrera, McLaren 12C Spyder, and Koenigsegg Agera). The drivers here may be comely DAWSON’S CREEK dropouts, but they’re still out-sexed by their machines, which purr like kittens and roar like lions, chew pavement, and look like they’d toast your bagel and butter it, too. Stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh (ACT OF VALOR) submits some killer action footage, courtesy dashboard cams and hood / roof / spoiler POV lenses. There are requisite flips and fireballs, slow-motion showers of shattered glass, a compelling canyon motocross and climactic seaside sprint, and a few out-of-nowhere collisions that rattle the teeth.
It’s no existential TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, but it’ll do for Sunday spin. 2 ½ out of 4 stars