Inspired by the long-running video-game series of the same name, "Need for Speed" is the first major-studio starring role for actor Aaron Paul in his post-"Breaking Bad" career. After award-winning work on that series and strong performances in a number of smaller indie films, Paul is no doubt being flooded with offers for work. With that in mind, it's unclear as to what drew him to this dim-witted action flick, which does nothing to improve the dismal track record of video-game-based films.
Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, a former race-car driver whose body shop faces foreclosure. That forces him to accept an offer from a past rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), to help him build a one-of-a-kind Ford Mustang. After selling the car for a cool $2.7 million, Dino challenges Tobey, along with their third business partner, Little Pete, to a drag race, which ends in Little Pete's fiery death. Dino frames Tobey for Pete's death, sending him to jail for two years, and allowing Dino to make off with the money. We flash forward two years as Tobey gets released from prison, with nothing but revenge on his mind. For some reason, he decides the best payback would be to compete against Dino in the DeLeon, a winner-takes-all, illegal street race staged annually by a wealthy organizer known as Monarch (Michael Keaton). Tobey drives across the country to reach the race's starting point, with a car aficionado love interest (played by British actress Imogen Poots) by his side. The stage is set for high-octane vengeance.
That's infinitely more story than a film of this type requires, and unsurprisingly, the car chases are where "Need for Speed" truly shifts into gear. Aside from a rather mean-spirited disdain for pedestrians and bicyclists, the races themselves are excitingly staged by director Scott Waugh ("Act of Valor"). So it is mystifying that screenwriter George Gatins chooses to spend so much time away from the action, with every moment of supposed drama slamming on the brakes, and allowing the audience time to ponder how stupid it all is. (Not to mention questioning the morality of staging high-speed races in residential areas.)
The actors mostly seem stranded with their cardboard characters, forced to speak in nothing but clichés. Paul feels miscast as the supposedly Steve McQueen-esque Tobey. What made the actor so compelling on "Breaking Bad" was the way he conveyed a deep vulnerability masked by a tough-guy exterior. His skills don't translate as well to this "strong and silent" type of character.
The practical car stunts are undeniably impressive, but recent installments of the "Fast and Furious" series have raising the bar for brainless car-related mayhem. The comparatively dull "Need for Speed" just can't keep up.