Melinda Sue Gordon
Aaron Paul stars as Tobey Marshall in a return to the car culture films of the 1960s and 70s. Need for Speed chronicles a near-impossible cross-country race against time one that begins as a mission for revenge but proves to be one of redemption.
"Need for Speed" is a pretty lousy movie. It's bloated, unrealistic and some might even find it irresponsible.
It's built around a 20-something street racer named Tobey who spends a lot of time driving really fast cars. Tobey is played by Aaron Paul, who just finished five seasons on a TV show ("Breaking Bad," TV-MA) many people identify as the best series of all-time. Now he is in a movie based on a video game.
Though its extensive back story and haphazard plot will try to convince you otherwise, "Need for Speed" is about a cross-country road trip. Tobey is trying to get to the West Coast to participate in an unsanctioned street chase run by the mysterious Monarch (played by Michael Keaton at the zenith of self-parody). Once there, Tobey is determined to vanquish his chief rival, Dino (Dominic Cooper), a former fellow racer who sold out and went pro.
Oh, he also caused a crash that killed Tobey's ex-girlfriend's little brother and landed Tobey in prison for a stretch. So there's that, too.
There's an inclination to call "Need for Speed" a poor man's "Fast and Furious," or even compare it to last year's "Getaway," but at least "Need for Speed" has a couple of advantages on Ethan Hawke's disaster.
First, "Need for Speed" casts Imogen Poots instead of Selena Gomez as its obligatory leading lady, and it helps when the audience doesn't feel compelled to throw the leading lady from the speeding car. It also has the common sense to allow the audience periodic breaks between car chases, rather than keep the engines going through its entire running length. This allows for more realistic character development. Well, slightly more realistic character development, and that might be a bit of a stretch.
"Need for Speed" has many flaws, but its biggest shortcoming is that it doesn't know when to stop. Literally.
This is a car chase movie that lasts 130 minutes and really shouldn't go more than 90. Part of this is because the film tries to fit an epic's worth of material into the narrative, but it also stumbles in the small things. For example, when Tobey's team is gathering in Detroit for their drive to California, one member is recruited from his miserable office job, and he celebrates by ditching his button-down clothing on the spot. It's a mildly funny gag that could have been simple and tasteful with the right editing, but instead director Scott Waugh drags the gag out far past its expiration date, blasting unsuspecting audiences with an abundance of bare-bottom screen time.
On the other hand, if "Need for Speed" has one thing going for it, it is that it understands its roots. Sharp-eyed car fans will pick out references to auto-cinema classics like "American Graffiti," "Bullitt" and even "Mad Max" in all of "Need for Speed's" wanton mayhem, which might just be enough to distract viewers from the more awful bits.
It's also fun to see all of the great chase settings from across the country, including a couple of local spots, and to know that the film employed real stunts instead of throwing a bunch of CGI at the screen.
Fans of the popular UK car review TV show "Top Gear" may be in the best position to appreciate this manic mess. The film features so many high-end super cars and ludicrous stunts that viewers won't be surprised to find host Jeremy Clarkson in the closing credits. And go figure, Paul just made his first guest appearance on the BBC show as its weekly "Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car."
Unfortunately, Clarkson's famously comic involvement would be the only way to justify some of the film's more egregious shortcomings. Even though "Need for Speed" manages to entertain in some of its best moments, the final product is just too bloated and inept to work.
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The strangest experience will be reserved for fans of Paul's work on "Breaking Bad." At times, watching the same trademark mannerisms he mined so well in a powerful adult drama intercut with "Need for Speed's" zany B-movie action feels like watching some teenager's "Breaking Bad"/"Fast and Furious" mashup on YouTube. Then again, co-star Bryan Cranston's next big project is this summer's "Godzilla" movie, so maybe everyone just needed a change of pace.
"Need for Speed" is rated PG-13 for general mayhem, some profanity and multiple shots of a male character's bare backside.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.