With the popularity of franchises like “The Fast and the Furious,” it was only a matter of time before a film adaptation of the popular video game racing series “Need for Speed” blasted its way into theaters. Coming from a series that features only the thinnest of stories (certain installments had none at all), it should come as no surprise that the film of the same name is similarly thin and meaningless. But while thin stories can be forgiven in a video game if the gameplay is solid, it’s hard to look past it here. “Need for Speed” features a capable leading actor with the former “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul, but the movie he’s in is near disastrous.
Tobey (Paul) is a down-on-his-luck mechanic. He owns a shop, but also owes his bank a lot of money. Unless he comes up with a substantial amount soon, the shop will be taken away from him and his crew. As luck would have it, along comes Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a rich entrepreneur who offers him a job: to build a fancy car worth millions of dollars. Once it sells, he’ll receive a quarter of the profit. It’s an easy job and the car is quickly sold, but clashing ideas lead to macho threats and the two, along with Tobey’s buddy, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), end up racing. Dino, who will do anything to win, ends up killing Pete during the race and frames Tobey, who is put in jail for two years for manslaughter. Upon his release, he sets out to win a spot in an underground street race called De Leon, which he hopes will clear his name and prove that Dino isn’t the person he pretends to be.
“Need for Speed” does something that is very hard to do: it brings together parts that are individually very good and mashes them into something that barely functions at all. Aaron Paul, for example, is a better actor than the typical meathead you get in these types of movies and he manages to give the emotional scenes some validity, but those scenes are so overwrought that they’re hard to take seriously. This vendetta Tobey has against Dino is nothing more than a flimsy excuse for high octane car chases. You see, the De Leon race he wants to participate in is actually in California. The problem is he resides in New York, so he has to make the long trek across the country, all while cops chase after him for breaking his parole and street punks try to take him out at the behest of Dino. There’s a proper narrative beginning and ending, but no arc in between. It’s essentially one long car chase.
Tobey also has a passenger, Julia (Imogen Poots), the assistant to the guy who lets Tobey borrow his car to drive across country, which leads to a number of narrative problems. Never mind the obvious question of why this man would let a recently paroled felon borrow his multimillion dollar car to travel cross country to an illegal street race. The biggest fail that derives from this forced companionship is a half-baked romance that falls flat on its face, despite the two spending the majority of the movie together in that car.
Much of this is to be expected, of course. Films like those aforementioned “Fast and Furious” films too suffered from many of the same issues, but that franchise eventually found its footing by realizing its absurdity and embracing it. Despite reaching a sixth installment in what amounts to a pretty thin premise, the popular franchise has only gotten better because of this self-awareness. Conversely, “Need for Speed” is oblivious and takes itself far too seriously. Even its score fails to realize the nature of the film it’s accompanying. By itself, or in another, more appropriately epic film, the score is majestic. It’s a sweeping, beautiful score that fits this film like an adult trying to squeeze into a baby sized onesie. When the score builds and hits a crescendo during such trivial moments like when Tobey and his crew gas up his car without stopping, the realization suddenly sets in that “Need for Speed” has absolutely no clue what it’s doing.
Some visual trickery is the only pleasure one can derive from the film outside of its far too lengthy car chases and races, but even that feels out of place. Its over-stylization is most notable in the random “Vertigo” tunnel shots and when it takes a page out of Tony Scott’s “Book of Manufactured Excitement” with rapidly rotating cameras during otherwise quiet conversations.
But while the film is easy to look at, it’s not easy to watch. The things that work on their own don’t fit within the context of the film, so all it has to fall back on is fast cars, loud engines and macho posturing. That may do it for some, primarily car enthusiasts and those easily amused, but it will undoubtedly bore those who wish for something a little meatier. Isolate certain aspects and you’ll find something worthy, but bring them all together and you end up with the absolute mess that is “Need for Speed.”