"Racing is an art," philosophizes Monarch (Michael Keaton), the renegade host of an underground supercar competition. Maybe it ison a controlled track, involving actual professionals. When said racing takes place illegally on winding public roads populated by unsuspecting pedestrians, however, it is moronic and despicably irresponsible. A flashy film adaptation of the long-running Electronic Arts video game series, "Need for Speed" is exceptionally shot by cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (2009's "Terminator Salvation
"), he and stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh (2012's "Act of Valor") demonstrating a vibrant, color-soaked eye for capturing its every location (from a New York drive-in and the glistening nighttime streets of San Francisco straight down to a small-town gas station) as if it's the most lovely sight in all the world. The centerpiece chases, too, rumble and vibrate with energetic aplomb, the reliance on hand-held camerawork and ADD-inspired editing so often found in action set-pieces of this nature kept refreshingly at bay. What becomes increasingly difficult to overlook are the expansive leaps in logic and near-nonstop barrage of icky character behavior found in first-time writer George Gatins' script and he and brother John's story. These nagging issues ultimately compromise the fun of simply watching hot cars zoom down the road against alluring American backdrops.
Financially strapped auto shop owner and mechanic Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) and successful car-upgrade entrepreneur Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) have shared a contentious relationship since growing up together in the small town of Mt. Kisco, NY. When a dick-measuring contest ends in a fatal car crash that takes the life of Tobey's best friend, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), Tobey is falsely charged for the accident while Dino, who was actually responsible for causing it, is not placed at the crime and gets off scot-free. Two years later, Tobey is out of jail and looking to settle the score. What better way to do this than by violating his parole and participating in Monarch's De Leon street racing competition? With spunky British car dealer Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots) riding shotgun, he takes off across the country with only 45 hours to reach the starting line in San Francisco.
If one is to buy into Tobey's curious, decidedly immature brand of vengeance, there are still too many plot contrivances to get past. Wouldn't it be easier for Tobey to fly to the west coast and then spend the next day and a half looking for a car to use in the race? Why is a man who has recently lost a friend in a violent car accident willing to put so many strangers' lives in danger by recklessly speeding across the U.S. while breaking nearly every conceivable driving law imaginable? As for the repercussions of causing a manhunt and countless crashes, some involving police cars, let's just say his punishment would be ever so slightly harsher than the cockamamie one he finally receives. Longish but fast-paced, "Need for Speed" diverts while infuriating. Tobey is the kind of appointed screen hero who is arguably just as bad, if not worse, than the antagonist of the piece. His thoughtless actions are self-serving to the point of distastefulness.
The saving grace of a lead character who earns little favor based on his misguided actions is that he is played so charismatically by Aaron Paul (2009's "The Last House on the Left
"), earning his biggest film role to date since winning acclaim for his breakthrough role on TV's "Breaking Bad." Bristling with quiet intensity and a naturally smoldering presence that never feels calculated, Paul is worth following even if it is impossible to fully sympathize with him. Tobey's onscreen sparring with Dino, played with a compelling magnetism of his own by Dominic Cooper (2012's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
"), reaches its zenith during a face-to-face encounter in a hotel lobby oozing with steamy subtext. "We'll settle this behind the wheel," Tobey tells him, breathing into Dino's face as the two of them act like they'd rather settle their differences between the sheets. As Julia, Imogen Poots (2014's "That Awkward Moment
") continues to exude a special star quality that meshes well with Paul (a scene where they argue during a tense situation about whose eyes are bluer is very funny). What isn't as pleasing is the treatment of a character who, as a woman, is trying to prove herself and her knowledge of cars to the men around her. Julia sticks up for herself, but by the end is pushed back into the passenger's seat and told she can't drivean intended throwaway joke with deeper misogynistic insinuations.
"Need for Speed" is less bloated than the last few entries in the "Fast and the Furious
" franchise (if still not equal to the boundless, anything-goes entertainment of 2004's underappreciated "Torque
"), living up to the promise of thrills and spills without too much pace-halting exposition in between. That the car stunts were reportedly achieved by practical means and not with digital effects make them all the more impressive, a testament that shooting things really happening in front of the camera are sometimes far more effective than CGI saturation. Meanwhile, the tacked-on side tangents the script goes down would have been better left on the cutting room floor, pandering material involving an in-air traffic reporter (Scott Mescudi) who assists in Tobey's journey and a former auto shop employee (Rami Malek) who quits his office job by publicly stripping down to his socks. Turning back to the central plot proper, the skewed rationale behind Tobey's conduct and the childish plotting he's stuck in are finally too much to accept and still respect his motives. It is okay, even desired, that movies like "Need for Speed" embrace a popcorn-munching frivolity and sense of fun, but there still needs to be an underlying accountability for its subject matter and onscreen figures meant to be rooted for. The film too frequently neglects and betrays this requirement and, regrettably, loses sight of its characters' morality. All of their problems would be nonexistent if they didn't act like a bunch of petty 12-year-olds.