The unfortunate burden “Need for Speed” must endure is the massively successful “Fast and Furious” franchise hovering over it like an overachieving older sibling. While it has some exciting racing scenes, along with chases, heart-stopping near misses and spectacular crashes, it also needs to have some characters, and face it, Aaron Paul’s Tobey Marshall is no Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) or Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker).
This is not entirely Paul’s fault. He has proven in “Breaking Bad” to be a captivating actor. The character, as written by George Gatins in his first screenplay, does not give Paul much to work with.
It is interesting that early in “Need for Speed” the groundbreaking car-chase scene from “Bullitt” is being shown on a drive-in theater screen. This appears to be a tie-in to having Marshall be the strong, silent type on which Steve McQueen put his trademark. But instead of being cool and confident, Paul appears uncomfortable. It is only later that Paul can add some substance to Tobey, but by then he is mostly behind the wheel of a high-performance car, building character while avoiding potentially deadly collisions.
Based upon a video game, “Need for Speed” is the basic revenge movie.
Marshall is the owner of an auto shop that is not doing well financially, and if it weren’t for the money he wins in illegal street races, he might be bankrupt.
Then Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), formally one of the locals, returns to town. He now is a professional racer and wealthy and has a proposition for Marshall and his colleagues in the shop — to finish building a special Ford Mustang that legendary designer Carroll Shelby was working on at the time of his death.
Marshall and Brewster have a history that is not too cordial, but there is no back story offered here. It may have to do with Brewster being engaged to Anita (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who may or may not have been in a relationship with Marshall.
The Marshall team builds the car and when Tobey himself conducts a test drive that is impressive enough to seal a sale, Dino, likely feeling overshadowed, is not exactly pleased.
This is where the plot gets ludicrous. Brewster seems to allow his ego to override any common sense and he challenges Marshall to a street race. In the ensuing race a tragic fatal accident occurs and Dino flees the scene and lets Tobey take the blame, resulting in a two-year prison sentence for Marshall.
Once out of prison, Tobey is spoiling to get even.
He gets his chance for revenge via an event called the DeLeon, an illegal street race organized by Monarch (Michael Keaton, regaining some of his “Beetlejuice” energy), a former racer now streaming online a race-oriented show.
Naturally, Dino is going to be a participant in this winner-take-all (including the other competitors’ race cars) event, disregarding that engaging in an illegal race like this could end his professional career.
Meanwhile, Tobey’s unlikely ally is Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), the lady who brokered the deal for the Shelby Mustang. That she manages to secure the Mustang for the DeLeon from the new owner despite the high chance for serious damage to the vehicle is yet another plot element that holds little sense — one that viewers must let go.
There is the pre-race challenge of traveling cross-country to California, the location of the DeLeon, while Tobey, his colleagues and Julia face the dangers of mercenaries who hear about the bounty put on Tobey’s head by Dino, hoping to prevent Marshall from challenging him in the DeLeon.
Director Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”) knows how to weave together high-impact scenes of great auto stuntsmanship but otherwise seems obsessed with facial closeups, especially of Poots.
Predictably, while escaping death, Tobey and Julia start developing a relationship.
Everything else is predictable too, once the DeLeon begins. You know who will be going down to the finish line in the last second dash to win. The plot does take a brief turn for an obligatory act of revenge but that does not alter the conclusion one bit.
Paul manages to flesh out a decent characterization despite the screenplay shortcomings, while everyone else does credible but not memorable work. Of the supporting cast, only Scott Mescudi as Benny, a colleague of Tobey’s who has a knack for securing whatever aircraft is nearby to serve as Marsall’s eye in the sky, has some cool moments.
“Need for Speed” is what one would expect for an adventure movie — superb on the stunts with just an average story and characters.