Actor Aaron Paul has been very upfront about the fact that after six years of playing a character as tortured and fucked up as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad, his next project needed to be a little light-hearted. This makes perfect sense, but still, I just wish that his agents would have talked him out of something like Need For Speed. The young actor is simply too good for this film, giving his character much more gravitas and depth than should possibly be expected of someone starring in a film based on a video game. No surprise, he ends up being the best thing in this overexcited, big budget mess. Also, car chases. Gratefully, there are quite a few high-speed pursuits and ramped up bits of adventure to help gloss over a spotty plot and a lot of messy acting by the rest of the cast.
Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a brooding, working class hero who struggles to keep his recently deceased father’s garage afloat by engaging in illegal street races around his upstate New York home. Then, into his life returns Dino Brewster, a dickish Indy 500 competitor (Dominic Cooper) who at first contracts Marshall and his gang to renovate a car, for which they’ll get half the money from its sale. Of course, it couldn’t just end there: Brewster challenges Marshall and his best buddy Little Pete to a race, the prize being all the money from the car deal. As you’ve likely guessed, Pete gets killed in the process, and Marshall gets blamed for the death even though it was Brewster what did it. With a chip on his shoulder that has only grown after six months in prison, Marshall seeks revenge via the De Leon, a much vaunted road race. But to ensure his place in the contest, he has to zip across the country in 40 hours. You can almost see in your mind’s eye the many police pursuits, the rescue by way of an army helicopter, and the many bad guys who try to get in the way of Marshall and his destiny.
One huge stumbling block in the film is that you can see the machinations at play within it. It makes every effort to connect itself to the legacy of other car-centric films and famous onscreen car chases. The French Connection, Vanishing Point (via a completely useless omniscient character played by Michael Keaton), Bullitt, and, of course, the Fast & Furious franchise all receive references within the overlong running time.
But Need For Speed’s biggest failing is that it is visibly and loudly aiming for something campy. That’s not something that can be attained deliberately. Half of the fun of the Fast movies is that their creators seemed to think they were making serious action films. Here, though, director Scott Waugh and screenwriter George Gatins try to have it both ways. They want a serious action film wrapped up in the glitter of camp; they end up attaining neither by never striking a consistent tone. Dramatic scenes feel empty, jokes drag on far longer than they need to, and some of the car chases bend incredulity to its breaking point. It’s the kind of nonsense that plays well through your Xbox but has no place in the multiplex.