Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Michael Keaton

Almost nothing works. The actors are wasted, the stunts are borrowed, the script is gaping with plot holes and the run time is too long by half an hour.

Need for Speed is the live-action film adaptation of the long-running racing video game franchise of the same name. It stars Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul, who after a high-stakes auto accident that kills his friend, races across the country to avenge his death and settle the score “behind the wheel.” I guess.

Along for the ride is plucky Julia, played by Imogen Poots, who is likable but ultimately has nothing to do, plus a rogues gallery of idiot friends played by D-list actors who’s highest-rated entries on IMBD are horror movies from the 2000’s.

The principal actors are all better than the material. I have to assume Aaron Paul played the video games when he was younger because it’s the only reason I can think of why he’s here. Was he looking to score that franchise-maker hit coming off of Breaking Bad? Obviously, Micheal Keaton is here for the paycheck. But Aaron Paul? I would assume he has basically the pick of the litter, project wise. He’s probably drowning in scripts, after Breaking Bad. Somehow though, “Video game adaptation” spoke to him as an actor…

Whatever. While the “video game” label is often used derisively, at least you know what kind of movie it’s gonna end up describing. Need for Speed, defiantly, doesn’t really feel like a video game. And that makes it terrible. It’s boring, somehow. It’s a high-speed light show that’s also the worst kind of blockbuster: the one that tries too hard, the one that attempts to transcend its pop roots. It insists on being a film “with a script.” It wants to be the definitive car movie, placing itself among the greats. But let me tell ya, it ain’t doin’ it.

In the film, Toby, played by Aaron Paul, and his high school-age(?) surrogate son, Pete, complete to build a beautiful Ford Mustang the legendary auto designer Carol Shelby couldn’t finish before his death. Car guy cliche, check. Toby owns a garage, and his old rival Dino, now a hotshot Indy car driver, –American car guy cliche, check- enlists his mechanic skills to finish the car. The car sells for close to $3 million, but Dino offers to sweeten the deal, all-or-nothing, on a high-octane 3-way super car road race to some bridge in the middle of town. Just as he’s about to lose, Dino P.I.T. maneuvers Pete’s car over the bridge, and Pete dies in the ensuing inferno. Toby is blamed for Pete’s death when Dino disappears, and spends the next two years in jail.

Here’s the first problem: All of that is the plot to a movie; only it’s not this one.  In fact, that’s just the setup. 30-45 minutes in and the real story hasn’t even gotten going yet. The real story(?) is about Toby’s race across the country for some other reason. It gets murky and doesn’t matter…

Oh, sorry…

So stop there. There’s your first clue as to what this movie is all about. It’s a film tied to racing video games. So what’s it got to have, you ask? A big race, right? The video games are notable for featuring expensive cars in sprawling races across exotic landscapes. So, this movie’s got to have expensive cars and races.

Well, ok… You can have a big race sequence, but it’s gotta feel organic. Remember when I said the first act contained enough plot to fill a whole movie? Need for Speed doesn’t agree. Need for Speed thinks it needs to pay tribute to the video game by mirroring the gameplay instead of making an exciting movie. Michael Keaton’s character even watches all the cars on a little mini-map, obviously reminiscent of a racing game. All it had had to do was feature exotic cars and that would have been enough to relate the film back to its video game roots. “Inspired by” is really all the likeness it had to bear.

And I’ve played the game. I’ve played it a lot. So at first, I’ll admit I had higher-than-average hopes for the film, mostly because of its leadl. But he, like his female costar Imogen Poots, and the confusingly cast Michael Keaton, is disarmingly and confoundingly better than the material here.

For starters, how old is Aaron Paul’s Toby supposed to be? He’s apparently old enough to have buried a promising racing career yet haunts the local high school hang out? [(I’m pretty sure it was a drive-in movie theater, if I remember correctly.) Coming-of-age cliche, check.] Every actor is at least 20 years old trying to pass for a teenager. This town’s main export is apparently vehicular mayhem? Where are you parents.

Upping the Ante: The Movie

Here’s the rub: On the one hand, you have to temper your expectations. What is this movie, really? Is it trying to be the next Bullitt or even Gone in 60 Seconds? Maybe someone in the production office thinks so. But in reality, it’s a line item on a studio’s portfolio. “We need an action movie in March. What have you got?” Is basically the bottom line. It’s an established franchise with a built-in customer base. It’s audience is primarily young teenagers. All they have to do is attach a name actor to convince dads to take their kids to it. It’s paint-by-numbers when you take a step back.

But then, that’s what irks me about this movie. There were too many above-average elements to simply discard it as disposable entertainment. You know, it’s fine if they were aiming for a C-. But I don’t think they were. The car chases were real. The stunts were real and filmed in-camera. There was an effort to distinguish itself from other CGI-heavy popcorn flicks. I’m sure the term “classic car chase” was thrown around the set more than once. There were even elements of the script that seemed designed for a more creative, earnest, movie. Imogen Poots’ character for example, was written much more intelligently than your average passenger-seat love interest. Her dialogue with Aaron Paul’s character was witty and playful. They had a chemistry, if lighthearted and vapid, that you don’t always see in movies like this.

But the plot, how it all hangs together, is just god-awful. It makes zero sense. Time jumps inexplicably. It loses all its steam in the first act. The characters are stupid. There are no real repercussions for their actions. Paul is in and out of jail in a kid’s movie. (what?) The decisions made in constructing this film are baffling to say the least. And it wasn’t fun.

So I’m sort of torn. On the one hand, there are movies that are made to be terrible. (Transformers, Con Air, etc.) They’re B-movies. However, I’m not convinced this one started out like that. I think the producers had films like The French Connection and Drive in their heads when they sat down to flesh it out. They filmed it for real. They spent money on talented actors and stunt work. The script was clearly a cheese-product but did have moments where artistic vision bubbled to the surface.

So do I rate it as an honest piece of film? Or do I give it a pass because it’s a silly action movie?

No, I’m me. And I’m coming down hard. It fails at both of those metrics, actually. It’s a B-movie that isn’t bonkers enough to be memorable. And it’s also a serious attempt at film making that falters in key places.  It’s a broke-down jalopy that stumbles head-on into oncoming traffic.

I’ll pass.

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