A celebration of reckless driving.
Need for Speed celebrates reckless driving with the bloodless consequences of an Xbox game for 10-year-olds, probably because it's adapted from the video-racing series of the same name. It's a daredevil fantasy of sideswipes and smashups that never collides with the mangled reality of vehicular misfeasance.
The car chase is a uniquely masculine film tradition in which an outsider behind the wheel refuses to play by the rules. In Need for Speed, the loner is Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), a blue-collar mechanic and amateur racer wrongly incarcerated for a close buddy's death during a winner-take-all street race. Upon release from prison, Tobey decides to avenge those injustices by entering an invitation-only contest against his snarky nemesis (Dominic Cooper), a former business partner who framed him for the murderous act. As the eccentric impresario who organizes this covert competition, Michael Keaton alternately channels Wolfman Jack and Beetlejuice.
The cross-country trip that precedes the big race is the film's centerpiece, implausible at every turn but respectable in its preference for stunt work over computer-generated imagery. Still, you could drive a Lamborghini through the script's gaping illogic. From the start, Need for Speed smells like a movie in search of a franchise. It may be fast, but it is not furious.
Squint hard enough and Aaron Paul could resemble Paul Walker, albeit a shorter, less tan version of the late star. But the problem with Paul is that he's an actor, not a matinee idol. In his initial scenes, Paul's brooding and taciturn demeanor, demonstrated by a raspy voice and sidewise stare, gives you the impression he's doing his best James Dean, and badly at that. Likewise, his romantic interactions flicker but never flame.
It's only when Paul exhibits his gift for implosive emotion that you appreciate his presence here. In the groundbreaking series Breaking Bad, Paul was compelling as the meth-head naïf Jesse Pinkman. This may be a role that comes once in a lifetime, but Paul shouldn't spin his wheels playing a guy who's window dressing in a movie with few aspirations. If NFS2 comes along, let's hope Taylor Kitsch is available.