After years of cheering on Vin Diesel leap from speeding muscle cars, survive deadly crashes, and shift gears a thousand times over in the Fast and the Furious franchise, do we really have the right to criticize Need for Speed for....well, anything? Of course this blazing, pedal-smashing adaptation of the best-selling video game strains credulity and cares more about shredding tires than building characters, it also has enough breathtaking race action to cross the finish line with some style.
Need for Speed is a straight up revenge tale; more in league with the early F&F films before they shifted into heist gear. Directed by ex-stuntman Scott Waugh and starring Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, any thought of plot complexity goes up like a puff of exhaust fumes within moments. Paul plays badass racer Tobey Marshall, who with his close-knit crew of pals (Rami Malek, Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi, Ramon Rodriguez, and Harrison Gilbertson) run a floundering but respected body shop in town. When arrogant ex-NASCAR tough guy Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) shows up in town with an offer to rebuild a legendary ride, it's an offer Tobey can't resist. Unfortunately it also leads to a showdown between the two, who share a past beefin' over the same woman (Fifty Shades of Grey's Dakota Johnson). A dangerous race in souped up cars leads to Dino killing the most earnest and innocent of Tobey's friends, framing him for the accident.
Two years later and out on parole, Tobey is looking for vengeance, the kind of vengeance that only comes from behind the wheel. The only way to do that is to gather his remaining team, score the fastest car on the planet, and enter the Deleon, a dangerous race for the world's best drivers. The race is put on by recluse Monarch (Michael Keaton, kind of fun but clearly high on something), who has a street racing podcast run out of his living room. Doesn't sound like the type of guy to hold such amazing sway, but there ya go. Putting the old crew back together is easy, topped off by a hilarious job quitting scene by Malek, who after his scene-stealing performance in Short Term 12 is becoming a terrific character actor. Finding a car proves to be no problem for Tobey, either, thanks to Julia (Imogen Poots), the quirky English gal who negotiated the deal for Dino and Tobey's hyped up car. Together they race across the country to find the location of the big race, all the while avoiding keystone cops and surviving mercenaries looking to cash in on the bounty Dino has placed on Tobey's head.
You'll be shocked, no doubt, to learn that the relationship between Tobey and Julia starts off antagonistic, only to give way to the flashing blinkers of love. They're actually quite a fun pair, even if the role seems a step beneath Poots. She's just feisty enough to match up nicely with the ever-intense Paul, who makes for more an action lead than a romantic one. The real stand-out here is Waugh, who co-directed the "real" military thriller Act of Valor a couple of years ago. He's more in his element directing cars rather than people, and he made the brilliant decision to use real cars, real stuntmen, and real blazing speed in every action sequence. Don't bother looking for any CGI because there isn't any, and it's a decision that adds a real urgency and momentum to every jaw-dropping sequence. Keeping car chases and smash 'em up collisions fresh is never easy but Waugh pulls it off easily. If Need for Speed continues on as a franchise, not a sure thing just yet, Waugh could prove to be as integral to it as any member of the cast.
Need for Speed isn't going to change the negative perception of video game movies, which is fine because it doesn't seem to have any aspirations other than to be a dumb, fun action flick. It may be the less starry, less flashy cousin of F&F, but there's plenty of room for both to exist.