"Based on a video game" can be a red flag for moviegoers. For one thing, so many video-game movies are hilariously bad. For another, without a familiarity of the game, the uninitiated may have no hope of keeping up with lazy writing meant to play only to a core demographic. Gamer cachet aside, Need for Speed is essentially about action scenes, so an attachment to the game itself is no requirement for a good time.
Need for Speed stars Aaron Paul as small town boy Tobey Marshall, a mechanic who dreams of following in his late father's footsteps and becoming a legendary illegal street racer. When a race ends in tragedy, though, Tobey and his crew are scattered to the winds while he goes away to prison. Don’t worry. His stint in stir makes up just a few short minutes in the film's running time. Then Tobey is back on the streets and ready to race for glory, money, redemption and revenge. Along the way, he picks up a sidekick in gorgeous gearhead Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), and, of course, a sexy spark ignites. But hey, not too sexy! After all, this movie is rated PG-13.
First and foremost, the action sequences are outstanding. Directed by former stuntman turned director Scott Waugh, Need for Speed features scads of practical effects over computer generated car chases. It's a difference you feel. Under Waugh's direction, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut places cameras in the cars or in tight proximity that keeps the audience in the action. With the addition of some seriously stunning 3D, you'll feel like you are in the passenger seat, for better or worse. As cars spin out into fiery explosions or pull off jaw-dropping jumps, you'll be at the edge of your seat. But when the car you're embedded in crashes, don't be surprised if you jump back into the safety of your seat. I did. Several times.
The script by George and John Gatins also spreads around the glory, letting Tobey's crew--from Poots to Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Kid Cudi, and Ramon Rodriguez--in on the fun and stunts. Unfortunately, most of the sidekicks are pretty one-dimensional, playing predictable parts in an unnecessarily convoluted storyline. But Poots postively shines.
The script functions very much like a 1980s actioner, where a steely hero is too cool to show his feelings, so he's surrounded by colorful characters--like Dominic Cooper's zealously evil race rival--and a charismatic love interest to fill the emotional void. Paul turns hard into the spin of this part, channeling Escape From New York-era Kurt Russell through a dedicatedly gravelly voice. But he doesn't possess the dangerous sex appeal or intimidation of Russell, a problem exacerbated by costumes that are either ill-fitting, hideous, or both. Tobey is hardly the kind of guy men wish to be and women wish to be with when he's draped in a loose pair of jeans and a denim shirt topped with a boxy jean jacket. That is a Texas tuxedo, and no one's idea of cool or sexy.
Here's where Poots is a lifesaver. She brings enough verve and effortless charm to the cross-country road trip and requisite romance subplot that it actually zings. As Tobey and Julia speed from the East Coast to the West to make the start line of a life-changing race, Poots exudes wit, humor and a joyful fearlessness that allows the audience to use her as an emotional touchstone while Paul broods and plays the strong silent type. As she was in That Awkward Moment, Poots proves the best part of the cast. Here's hoping the slate of movies she has coming up makes even better use of her talents.
In the end, Need for Speed is an uneven ride. It contains some fantastically gripping action sequences that will have you gripping at the theater's armrests. But the plot itself takes the scenic route when short cuts would have been better. Its lead hero is a cold fish, yet his story is saved by a wonderfully warm ingénue. Some jokes are lame, and several car sequences had me distracted by the troubling collateral damage to innocent bystanders. But if you're looking for an adventure to tide you over until Fast & Furious 7 finally hits, Need for Speed will deliver. It doesn't have that franchise's sly self-awareness or gonzo brand of action, but Need for Speed is fast and furious, in its own right.