By Greg Popil

You have to give the creators of “Need For Speed” this much credit:  They don’t lack guts when it comes to throwing down the gauntlet in terms of living up to the legends of its genre.  Not five minutes into the film, the characters all drive in to an old-timey drive-in movie theater.  The film being shown?  Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt,” which features arguably the greatest car chase ever filmed (with apologies to “The French Connection” and “The Road Warrior”).  The filmmakers are sending a clear message:  Forget about the “Fast and Furious” movies, this is the film that will take the motorhead-centric action movie into the 21st century.

If only the movie had the talent to match those guts.  Continuing in the fine tradition of adapting a video game to the big screen with as little effort or inspiration as needed, “Need For Speed” stars Aaron Paul as Tobey Marshall, a street racer and auto mechanic who enters into a tenuous agreement with an old rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) to restore a legendary Ford Mustang.  For reasons too convoluted to get into (at a punishing 130 minutes, this movie could have afforded to drop at least two or three subplots), Marshall, Brewster and Marshall’s saintly buddy  who has visions of the future (seriously) end up in a three-way street race that ends tragically and with Marshall unfairly sent to prison.  While in jail, Marshall comes up with a plan to use the Mustang to defeat Brewster in a race and … somehow avenge the tragedy, or something.

About that tragedy:  The movie features more than one car accident, and whenever it involves a main character, it’s considered a horrible catastrophe.  No one, on the other hand, seems to care in the slightest about the dozens of cars demolished during the course of these races.  Maybe I’m just a stick in the mud (or a non-sociopath, or whatever), but I couldn’t help but wonder about all those cars.  Did anyone get hurt?  Were there kids in there?  Ahh, clearly some of us will never be x-treme enough for this sort of thing.

There’s no denying that, at least for the first hour or so, the stunt work and driving is impressive.  Director Scott Waugh is helming only his second film, but he has worked as a stuntman in more than 40 movies, and you can see where his passion is.  Unlike many recent car-centric movies like “Gone in 60 Seconds” or the later “Fast and Furious” movies, “Need For Speed’s” races and chases are grounded in plausible physics and, with the exception of one idiotic stunt involving a helicopter, reality.  There appears to be a minimum of CGI, and the camera frequently cuts to a dashboard-camera POV shot that brings some moments of genuine intensity to the action sequences.

Unfortunately, all of the care that went into the stunts came at the expense of putting any sort of effort into the script.  It almost feels like the filmmakers threw every cliché they could come up with into a blender and stuck them in screenplay as “dialogue” as they came flying out (if you think that someone would say that “this is about way more than racing” at the start of the big climactic showdown, well, you would be correct).

The plot is inoffensively stupid, until the last 20 minutes or so, when it became aggressively so (without getting too into spoilers, it’s unbelievably dumb to compete in an illegal race to try and prove a point when a simple call to the police would result in the same outcome,  not involve nearly dying and committing a couple casual felonies).  The cast ranges from non-entities (the generic love interest played by Imogen Poots, Cooper’s even more generic villain, rapper Kid Kudi’s painfully unfunny comic relief) to the wasted.  Rami Malek, who was such a live wire as the borderline psychotic Private Snafu on HBO’s “The Pacific,” gets one halfway amusing comedic showcase before shuffling off to the background, and Michael Keaton, as the race’s organizer, dials up the mania to a level not seen since “Beetlejuice” but gets saddled with all of the worst lines in the movie.

And then there’s Aaron Paul.  Entire libraries worth of articles and columns have been written about what he did as Jessie Pinkman, but it really is worth reiterating:  Paul gave one of the flat-out greatest performances in television history as the tormented, drug-addled soul of “Breaking Bad.”  It’s a genuine thrill to see him get his shot in a leading role of a big Hollywood movie, and it’s that much more of a disappointment that he is hardly ever allowed to do anything other than act like a grimly determined avatar in a video game.  In the couple of scenes at the end of “Speed’s” first act where he is allowed to actually act a little bit, Paul dials it up so effortlessly that he outclasses everyone else involved.  “Bullitt’s” Steve McQueen was one of the all-time great movie stars.  Paul has what it takes to be even better.  But “Need For Speed” is not the vehicle to get him there, no matter how pretty a paint job it sports.

Rating:  29/81

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