While “Need for Speed” carries a generic name apparently dreamt up by a 12-year-old, it turns out it was merely a title meant for 12-year-olds. “The Need for Speed” is a video game first released in 1994 on PC and, nostalgia alert, the 3DO and Sega Saturn. The series has spawned 19 more iterations since, with titles such as “Shift,” “Most Wanted,” “Nitro” and “Hot Pursuit.” For the past 20 years, if you’ve wanted to push a Lamborghini Aventador to 180 mph in a beachside town, or floor a Porsche Boxster Spyder past the police on a cracked desert highway, some “Need for Speed” game was probably the safest way to go about that, and undoubtedly the cheapest.
Usually in such games the player starts with a standard-issue roadster and unlocks better cars by winning races. The cinematic version works similarly, to a degree. After each race, you unlock such plot point as “hero earns $5,000” or “guy you knew was gonna die finally goes ahead and dies.” Alas, it’s hard to unlock such key features as “characters learn and change over time” or “logic prevails” — but we should note that it was directed by an actual stuntman, Scott Waugh. The ride is fine enough so long as you remember it’s only a movie, and one loosely based on a video game, at that.
Aaron Paul (forevermore Jesse from “Breaking Bad,” speaking of speed) plays Tobey Marshall, the black sheep of a racing family, who runs a custom garage in upstate New York. He’s the local legend who never made good, a fact made even starker by the success of rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), an IndyCar racer back in town to ask a favor: help build a monster Mustang that Dino got hold of, and split the profits. The car’s sale brings fetching gearhead Imogen Poots into the mix, but when Tobey and Dino start puffing their chests, a bad thing happens during a street race. Dino has the alibi. Tobey goes to prison. Act I ends with orange jump suits.
Revenge takes many splendored forms, none more so than when a street racer has a couple of years in the hoosegow to plot against another. Tobey’s return will require him to join a super elite, super secret road race assembled by an oxymoronically shadowy talk-radio figure called the Monarch (Michael Keaton, as a sort of drive-time Beetlejuice). This will require him first to drive cross-country in less than two days’ time, pulling a series of increasingly ridiculous stunts to catch the Monarch’s attention, to evade bumbling cops and to dodge bad guys. A coterie of his buddies, including Scott Mescudi (a.k.a. Kid Cudi) as a seemingly omniscient pilot, assists.
The immediate comparison that comes to mind is to the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, and at times it feels the “Need for Speed” crew determined that horsepower, rather than star power, would be the equalizer. Aside from an opening scene of muscle-car street racing and the (albeit $2 million) Ford Mustang that Tobey has to drive cross-country, there’s not much in the way of consumer-accessible wheels here. The Koenigseggs that appear in a scene of lunatic highway racing are Swedish hypercars straight out of a futuristic anime. Your eyes will bug out at the — Bugatti Veyron, is it? And so on down the line. It’s like half a season’s worth of “Top Gear” shoehorned into two hours. Unlike its all-digital predecessors, this “Need for Speed” spends a lot of money showing real cars and treating them rather roughly. It really needed a few more skilled actors. All that speed, though, ain’t such bad consolation.