Need for Speed, inspired by the video game of the same name, runs 130 minutes, which is crazy-long for an action movie, especially a formula entry in which every bend in the road can be seen from miles away. Here’s a movie about fast cars, and yet the audience is ahead of it the whole time.
Still, Need for Speed has two strong things in its favor — things that will keep most people reasonably happy all the way to the finish line (literally). First, there’s Aaron Paul, hot off his success in Breaking Bad, starring in his first big-budget feature. An action movie about fast cars might not be the most challenging showcase, but Paul has enormous appeal and sensitivity, and the film finds opportunities for him to go to some dark and tormented places. If you have an actor with that ability, why not use it?
The movie’s second big strength is director Scott Waugh’s interest in finding new ways to make his car chases exciting. Yes, there are too many of them in Need for Speed — even for a movie about car chases. At times, you might find yourself zoning out from the glut of them, not sure who is in what car and not caring. Even so, just when the movie needs it, Waugh will often pull out a surprise. He’ll come up with something huge and jaw-dropping that no one has seen before. These sequences are yet more impressive when you find out that it was all done for real, without the use of CGI.
Paul is an actor who doesn’t have to win over the audience — something about him just radiates “good guy.” It served him well on Breaking Bad, and it does so here as Tobey, a small-time street racer with big-time talent and a struggling auto shop. No wonder he’s struggling: He employs six guys and yet never has any customers.
In the movie’s first minutes, Tobey gets involved in a business deal with a sleazy, calculating associate — played by Dominic Cooper — who represents his moral opposite. When things blow up (again, literally), Paul gets to play anguish, devastation and horror, three emotions he can access as readily and as convincingly as any actor out there.
That’s when Need for Speed shifts gears and becomes a story of the open road, with most of the film involving a cross-country trip, from east to west. Accompanied by a young English racing enthusiast (Imogen Poots), Tobey tries to make his way, despite lots of obstacles, to a clandestine car race outside San Francisco.
Along the way, the director takes the opportunity to reference other road and racing movies, including one exhilarating homage to Thelma and Louise. The success of a movie like Need for Speed has little to do with suspense and everything to do with rooting interest. So even though there’s none of the former, there’s lots of the latter, and that’s what matters. Late in the film, San Francisco makes an appearance, and it’s nice to see the city of legend again — the bridges, the hills, the cable cars — rather than the workaday city that we’ve been seeing in movies lately.
Michael Keaton has a bizarre role. He plays a wealthy racing patron, who is seen in only one location, doing some kind of live Internet program in which he somehow watches and calls the race for his fans — but really for us, the audience in the theater. Keaton, as always, brings his customary energy, but after a while it really does feel like you’re watching an actor flailing about on an empty soundstage.
Months after the completion of principal photography — or was it months before? — Keaton comes in and does his entire part over the course of a few days. It looks like lonely work.
Cast: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Michael Keaton.
Director: Scott Waugh.
Screenwriter: George Gatins.
Producers: John Gatins, Patrick O’Brien, Mark Sourian.
A DreamWorks Pictures release. Running time: 130 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, car crash violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.