For a videogame adaptation, Need for Speed is fantastic. Then again, "for a videogame adaptation" might be the biggest caveat possible, as the controller-to-big-screen shift has produced consistently horrific works like (ugh) Super Mario Bros.
Thankfully, Need for Speed succeeds by not forcing the videogame dynamic. The movie works on a serviceably entertaining level in the same way as the Fast and Furious films; no one expecting more than a fun couple of hours of car porn will be disappointed. While simple, it hits all the expected action movie beats, features two eminently likeable leads, and even offers a couple of unexpected hairpin turns.
Need for Speed centers on Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), one of the best drivers who never made it as a pro racer. He now runs a mechanic shop with his pals in his hometown of Mt. Kisco, N.Y., and gets his driving fix through local street races. Things sour when his old rival and Indy driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) shows up and offers him $500,000 to finish building a legendary Shelby Mustang. Through the automobile's sale, Tobey meets Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), a high-end British car dealer. After being framed for a crime by Dino and serving his time, Tobey, his pals, and Julia (who provides the Mustang) must speed across the country to California in 45 hours to get to DeLeon — the world's biggest illegal underground race (run by a cartoonish Internet race show host and the film's narrator, played by Michael Keaton) — hopefully to get a shot at redemption and revenge.
In his first big role post-Breaking Bad, Paul delivers a successful leading-man turn. As Tobey, he mixes quiet, brooding anger and intensity with warm, endearing affability. The real breakout performance, however, comes from Poots, who provides a blast of radiant charm that elevates Julia above the generic love interest role. There's an ease in her playfulness with Paul and glimpses of a stern edge, which are executed to near perfection. Load up on Poots' stock now — she's going to be big-time.
Perhaps surprisingly for a videogame adaptation, the film takes a decidedly non-CGI approach to most of its special effects. The stunt drivers shine, but one of Need for Speed's biggest flaws comes in its presentation of racing. Director Scott Waugh frequently isn't able to convey how fast the cars are traveling. Camera shots often are close or follow the vehicles from above or behind on vast roads. It's reminiscent of a NASCAR race on TV; a bunch of vehicles traveling the same speed can look underwhelming without a track-level view.
With the frenzied pace, character development is blown past with nary a second thought. The film expects the audience to loathe Dino early without evidence, other than he kind of seems like a dick. When he offers the half-million-dollar project, it's presented as a moral choice for Tobey, and his pals try to talk him out of it, which seems absurd at the time. Is Dino really that bad?
There are plenty of moments requiring creative suspension of disbelief, like why there is aerial support and an advanced computer tracking system for a Mt. Kisco street race with a $5,000 prize. The only real wreck in Need for Speed (apart from actual car wrecks) happens when the films attempts humor. Almost every attempted joke misses, despite Scott Mescudi's (aka Kid Cudi) charismatic effort as Tobey's main comic-relief pal Benny.
While not without a few speed bumps, Need for Speed offers an action-filled ride that runs laps around its gaming movie peers. ♦