Here’s the quick, easy way to tell the difference between the good guy, the bad guy, and the innocent guy in this supposed throwback to the fast car movies of the 1970s. The innocent guy is smiling, the good guy is glowering and the bad guy is sneering. You don’t have to think about this very much because before you know it, the film launches into one of its races (it’s the second one; the first one is so uninteresting, it will get no further mention). All three contestants are driving color-coordinated Koenigseggs that are low and sleek and fast and fancy. Don’t worry about not being able to pronounce the car’s name; you can’t afford one, anyway.
And don’t worry that I’m going to give away a big plot point: The bad guy cheats, the innocent guy dies, the good guy is framed for it and goes to jail. Two years later, the real story begins. It’s about revenge, or maybe it’s about dealing with old enemies, or finding out if you really can drive from New York to California in 45 hours in order to take part in a secret car race, the location of which the drivers don’t even know until they’re invited by the secretive fellow known only as Monarch.
Right, let’s mention the names of the players. The good guy is Tobey (Aaron Paul, from “Breaking Bad”), an ace mechanic and hot shot driver who’s just taken over his dead dad’s garage in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. (where, it seems, the old Steve McQueen movie “Bullit” is on the Mt. Kisco Drive-in screen every night). Tobey only drives in small-town races, at night, through alleys and side streets and light traffic, with the assistance of a pal up above in a Cessna who’s watching for cops. The bad guy is Dino (Dominic Cooper), Tobey’s old high school rival, who has made a pile of dough, and comes back to town after many years , with Tobey’s ex-girlfriend on his arm, and a pricey, one-of-a-kind Mustang (“built by Ford and reimagined by Carroll Shelby) that he wants Tobey and his crew to fix up. The innocent guy is Pete – one of Tobey’s mechanics – but we don’t really get to know him very well before he gets behind the wheel of that Koenigsegg.
The only other pertinent information is that Tobey is behind on his loan for the business, so, despite despising Dino, he takes the job. His mechanics, in the best/worst of cliché style, say, practically in unison, “We’ll do it for Tobey!”
Cut to the finished car, enter the slinky Brit Jules (Imogen Poots), who’s an agent for someone back home who wants to buy the car, stage that deadly race, see Tobey getting out of jail, say hello to Monarch (Michael Keaton), a character who’s entire performance happens in one room, behind a microphone, where he blathers on and on about his upcoming underground, illegal race that he’s dubbed the De Leon. It’s a race that will involve only six invited drivers. I’ll bet you already figured out that Tobey and Dino are going to be two of them.
“Need for Speed” tries to catch the flavor of 1970s car-centric films such as the above-mentioned “Bullit” and “Smokey and the Bandit.” But aside from the fact that the driving and the stunts are real, and not CGI, there’s very little resemblance. The film, and all of its performances, except for an over-the-top one from Keaton, are flat and dull. Even the driving-racing sequences aren’t very exciting. The cliché-ridden script keeps getting bogged down by yet more clichés.
There’s some believable camaraderie between the mechanics, but there’s nothing believable about that cross-country trip. And you’ve got to wonder why the film has the Jules character in it. She’s annoying, adds nothing to the story, and while Poots comes across physically as a sort of cross between Rosanna Arquette and Olivia Newton John, she exhibits something like half of their acting ability.
There are some very cool cars, but the film exists only as a loooong buildup to the big race at the end, one which is also riddled with more of those clichés. Nothing new has been added to the car racing genre. Worse, this is a bad movie with an ending that’s worse than anything that’s come in the two hours before it.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now
NEED FOR SPEED Written by George Gatins; directed by Scott Waugh With Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots. Michael Keaton Rated PG-13