OK, this one’s easy. Disney is looking for its own car-chase movie to rival The Fast & The Furious while that series is on a break. Electronic Arts is looking for a movie version of their best-selling video game series and whatever cultural legitimacy that that confers. And Aaron Paul is looking for a chance to prove that he can play more than Jesse Pinkman from TV’s Breaking Bad. So we have Need for Speed. Now that we’ve figured out the logic behind the movie, is it any good? As a piece of storytelling, not really. As a car-chase movie, yeah.
Paul portrays Tobey Marshall, who runs a garage in upstate New York with his friends, building custom racing cars for rich guys who like to drive really fast. One such client is a former professional racer-turned-dealer of high-end sports cars with the laughable name of Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Having a not-so-friendly history with Tobey and feeling momentarily disrespected by him, Dino challenges both Tobey and his beloved little brother Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) to a road race in three illegally imported Swedish-made Koenigsegg Ageras. You can guess how this will play out before they even get in the cars. Dino not only causes Pete’s death in the race but allows Tobey to take the blame and spend two years in prison for it. Upon his release, Tobey vows to clear his name and get some payback by violating his parole and heading to San Francisco to beat Dino at a legendary underground race up the West Coast.
There are no real surprises in this story. You know that when a babe named Julia (Imogen Poots) turns up in a showroom flashing her designer boots and posh British accent, she’ll turn out to be as knowledgeable about engines as any of the guys. You also know when she’s going to fake an American accent to try to get out of a tight spot. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton turns up as the race’s shadowy organizer, hosting a web radio show to spout all sorts of gibberish about the mystical communion with the infinite that only auto racers know. (Sample line: “This race is Tobey Marshall’s Mona Lisa! His David! His Campbell’s soup can!”) With a script as weak as the one that George Gatins serves up, you feel somewhat sorry for Paul, who works his ass off trying to create a three-dimensional hero out of a role that’s all revenge and gearshifts. It just isn’t happening.
But then, who’s going to this movie for the script? The cast may not have the martial-arts chops that the Fast & Furious stars do, but you still get to see the actors here do some impressive stunts, including a throwaway bit with Poots leaping from a second-story ledge into Paul’s arms. The same two actors are also clearly actually inside a silver Ford Mustang that’s suspended from a helicopter and dangling 300 feet in the air. The wiry, scruffy Paul and the languid, velvety Poots strike some interesting sparks off each other, too, especially in a scene in that airborne Mustang, when Tobey tries to distract the acrophobic Julia from the height by drawing her into an argument over whose eyes are bluer. (It’s really no contest. Paul’s eyes are deep blue while Poots’ blue eyes are so light-colored that it’s kind of unsettling.)
Scott Waugh previously directed the Navy SEAL thriller Act of Valor, and he has a decent feel for the movie’s multiple car chases. He does his best work in an early scene when Tobey tries to scare off Julia by taking her on a wild ride, tearing through gas stations and strip-mall parking lots at top speed. That’s something I don’t remember seeing in a car-chase movie. Of course, in a movie like this, the cars always have to look good, so cinematographer Shane Hurlbut films all the Jaguars, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis in hues that will sexually arouse any devotees of high-performance automotive vehicles. For a film that doesn’t pretend to be much other than what it is, this helps Need for Speed deliver, more or less, on its modest promises.
Need for Speed
Starring Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots. Directed by Scott Waugh. Written by George Gatins. Rated PG-13.