Need for Speed is a movie about illegal street racing that follows a convoluted story of revenge. Simple developments are over-explained while gaping plot holes are casually swept under the rug. Its story is not told well. So the movie is bad, right?
Not so fast. The stuntwork is top of the line, ranging from straight-up racing and dazzling crashes to 80 mph refuels and taking “riding shotgun” too literally. The stunts are all practical, meaning that professional stunt drivers actually performed them in real cars. None are created by CGI. This lends Need for Speed a breakneck energy that only the very best action movies can rival. And what else do you go see a movie about street racing for, if not the stunts? So the movie is a success, right?
Need for Speed is neither good nor bad. Every scene in a car or following one is superb. Every scene with feet planted firmly on ground drags. Since the movie splits its time half-and-half, it alternately demands and loses your attention. Most of the non-road moments are dealt with early on, so if you can make it through a lengthy setup, the payoff is worth it.
Tobey is a street racer who runs a failing garage for high-end cars. His old rival, Dino, is now a successful racer who is married to Tobey’s ex. Tobey is played by Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) whose pathos makes up for Dominic Cooper (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) playing Dino as so unabashedly evil that I’m disappointed he never gets to nefariously twirl a mustache. Dino hires Tobey to finish building a legendary Ford Mustang, but the two can’t set their rivalry aside. Instead of splitting the sale, they race for the entire pot of $2.7 million. The race ends tragically: Tobey is sent to prison for a vehicular murder that Dino commits.
It’s difficult to feel too bad for Tobey, however. We’re introduced to him nearly driving over a homeless man during a race. The movie plays it for laughs – he only runs over the man’s worldly possessions. Hilarious, right? During Tobey and Dino’s race, Tobey is forced into oncoming traffic. It’s exciting, yet our hero is running innocent commuters off the road and causing high-speed collisions. Even if Tobey’s conviction isn’t precisely on the money, it’s hard to feel as if he doesn’t deserve it.
The Fast and Furious franchise at least has the good sense to couch its disaster-filled car chases in Robin Hood-style robberies of dictators and gangsters. This gives us the excuse that all the senseless collateral damage is about the greater good, not some individual racer’s ego. The saving grace of Need for Speed is that this cast pushes through it all with so much bright-eyed vigor that it’s infectious. This is in large part due to Imogen Poots. She plays Julia, a luxury car expert who becomes Tobey’s romantic interest. It’s easy to root for Paul and Poots, who really look like they’re having fun, rather than the scummy characters they play.
Most of the film takes place after Tobey’s release from prison. He races cross-country to join the DeLeon, a mythical race put on by Monarch. Other characters keep insisting nobody knows who Monarch is, even though he’s a billionaire, hosts an internet show that consists of a close-up of his own face, and seems to have given his super-secret home phone number to every single person on Earth. It’s OK, because in the long history of characters whose existence in their own movies makes no sense, there is one actor who’s made this nonsense his specialty – Michael Keaton (RoboCop). He pulls off Monarch with the heated, nonstop ADD of a veteran actor who’s having the time of his life slumming it in a B-movie.
Why will winning the DeLeon give Tobey his revenge? It’s never said, but it’s worth a lot of money. Dino is kind enough to provide a reason by joining the DeLeon at the last second. He also leaves evidence of Tobey’s wrongful conviction and his own guilt unprotected on his computer’s desktop, where his wife can access it in approximately 10 seconds. Maybe he’s not such a bad guy, after all.
Few films achieve the cosmic balance between good and bad that Need for Speed does. In a way, it reminds me of the bus from the 90’s Keanu Reeves movie Speed. The infectious acting and stuntwork are enough to keep you on board. Any dialogue taking place under the speed limit, however, and the plot explodes. Need for Speed is rated PG-13 for disturbing crashes, nudity, and language.