Need for Speed helped me understand why I like the later Fast and Furious movies and not the first few. While I don’t necessarily have anything against car chases in movies, their purpose matters. If it’s a cop chasing a criminal, then reckless driving is in service of a greater good. If it’s a good guy trying to get away from bad guys, we’ll understand not obeying the speed limit and traffic signals. But street racing is selfish, and its callous nature of putting innocent people at risk for the gleeful joy of fame and glory is somewhat despicable depending on the tone. If your characters are going to be oblivious and self-indulgent, then the movie should follow suit. Unfortunately, Scott Waugh takes his material far too seriously, and even though lead actors Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots give the film some life without winking at the camera, Need for Speed is too blind to check the periphery and too slow to have a good time.
Tobey Marshall (Paul) is a former racing star who’s now struggling to make the payments on the auto shop he inherited from his dad. When his rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) offers Tobey and his crew 25% of the profits on a restored Mustang, they take the job. After the car sells for $2.7 million that should be the end of it, but Dino then wagers Tobey and Tobey’s irritating little buddy Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) an all-or-nothing race. Tobey takes the wager and is about to win when a desperate Dino nudges Pete off the road, and Pete dies in a fiery car wreck. Tobey gets pinned for the manslaughter, somehow gets released from jail after only serving two years, and goes to get revenge on Dino by beating him in the prestigious De Leon race held by the reclusive and eccentric Monarch (Michael Keaton). The Mustang buyer’s assistant, Julia (Imogen Poots), provides the restored car and the two head across country while dodging cops and rival drivers.
Waugh’s decision to play it straight backfires because the characters’ actions and resources are too ludicrous to believe. Tobey is on parole, and his instinct isn’t to make a low-profile, efficient trip to his destination. It’s to do things like swerve around traffic, create car crashes, and call on the help of his helicopter-flying pal Benny (Scott Mescudi) just to avoid a single red light. It’s bragging about restoring cars even though they’re using holographic technology that doesn’t exist. It’s having Benny easily pick up choppers to the point where we’re left to wonder which organization is more lax: the FAA or highway patrol? If Need for Speed took place in the real world, Tobey would be fleeing from a fleet of cops on a nationally-televised chase. Waugh is playing it grounded when there’s almost nothing to ground the picture.
Perhaps in an attempt to be the anti-Fast and Furious, Need for Speed has fallen into the trap of the first movies in that franchise. The Fast and the Furious series eventually figured out that the tone of the picture has to match the silliness of the actions, and eventually they struck the right balance. By comparison, Need for Speed veers from dull to flat-out mean-spirited and self-centered. Even when they close off the roads for the opening street race (how they have this power even in a small town is beyond me), the racers knick a homeless man’s shopping cart. Rather than feel an ounce of concern for this person, they laugh it off to where one of the characters may as well have shouted out, “Fuck you and the recycling money you need to survive! Wheeeee!” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as Tobey has no problem causing innocent people to have car wrecks just so long as he gets his way.
Keep in mind that Tobey never had to race Dino in the match that got Pete killed. Tobey got greedy, prideful (he has a rivalry with Dino before the movie even begins), and instead of ever taking responsibility for his mistake, he’s going in for revenge where everyone else has to pay the price. Sure, Dino is a bad guy and an even worse liar, but Tobey wracks up a lot of collateral damage in a quest to avenge the death of an annoying kid whose resemblance to Justin Bieber is constantly distracting.
To his credit, Paul gives the role his all. He doesn’t try to distance himself from the material or twist it to suit his needs. Paul plays Tobey with laser-like intensity, and it’s a bit of a waste since Tobey is a flat, simple character. There’s no room for him to elevate the role, but at least he has good chemistry with Poots, who’s one of the few, peppy sparks of life in an unrelenting dour picture (the other is Keaton, who gets to chew the scenery and act like he’s in a rambunctious, sillier, and all-around more enjoyable movie). As for Tobey’s friends Benny, Finn (Rami Malek), and Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), they serve as lame comic relief, and their jokes feel particularly forced when set against the po-faced backdrop.
Eventually, my mind started to drift as much the cars. With the exception of a few crashes and neat maneuvers, the set pieces are an absolute chore and as bland as the rest of the picture. The script is poor (it features lines of dialogue like “This isn’t the kind of car you can just buy at the mall.”), the action is uninspiring (it’s more revving noises than anything else), and there’s very little worth caring about. Need for Speed wants to take audiences on a ride, but it ends up going nowhere fast.