There’s an early scene in Scott Waugh’s “Need for Speed” where Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) and his crew of mechanic pals pull into the local drive-in (which seems to be the most popular spot in town and is lit like a disco pinball machine) like small town gods of the street-racing circuit. It makes you think the movie might exist in some sort of retro-fitted alternate reality, and while that isn’t entirely the case, these throwback elements do tend to sneak in every once in a while. For one, the racing sequences are not CGI-heavy at all and are actually quite thrilling. Waugh is a former stuntman and it’s clear he wanted these scenes to have a more realistic vibrancy to them (realistic as in we can tell people are really driving these cars and not realistic in terms of the scenarios the cars find themselves in). It really pays off, and there’s a spare, economical style in the way much of the racing is filmed (particularly the first race, which feels decidedly low-stakes and may be better for it). Unfortunately, this appeal does not extend over into many other aspects of the film, some of which is mind-numbingly idiotic.
The basic plot concerns Tobey driving across the country to get revenge on Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who is responsible for killing a kid he used to mentor, as well as framing Tobey for it. His drive (which ends up being a chase) across the country is obviously set to conclude at a high-stakes race against Dino, but the things that happen on the way to the race are damn near baffling.
Kid Cudi (going by his real name, Scott Mescudi) plays one of the guys on Tobey’s crew who has the ability to steal helicopters from anywhere at any point in time so he can track the protagonist’s progress and give him a better idea of what traffic is like on the road in order to ensure speedy travel. I’m assuming this is all part of the video game because his constant stealing of helicopters in the movie is positively confounding. Mescudi also provides comic relief, which he seems to think is supposed to consist of a lot of quick movement and showing a lot of teeth.
The strangest part of the movie though, is when the crew has to round up their last member, played by Rami Malek. He’s working some ho-hum desk job and has given up the racing lifestyle, but the second he sees Tobey burn rubber outside his office, not only is he ready to jump right back into it, he decides to strip naked. What follows is a lengthy sequence of him taking off his clothes as he leaves the building, passing his co-workers on the way out. What makes it even more bizarre is the fact that Malek is playing this character in a way that is not unlike his role of Lancaster Dodd’s son-in-law in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (all wide-eyed detachment and delivery that suggests he has to dedicate time to thinking of each individual word before he actually says it). I don’t know if that’s just how he is in real life, but it’s in weird conflict with the material here, especially when he’s playing a character whose main function is humor.
Tone is a problem with “Need for Speed” in general. It’s a bit like “The Fast and the Furious”-light; none of the main characters seem to use guns, Aaron Paul isn’t particularly tough and Dominic Cooper isn’t particularly menacing. Then it throws in the retro stuff and the weird digressions into lowbrow humor. It makes for an odd mix. One thing I liked was the inclusion of the mysterious Michael Keaton character who practically narrates the feud between the leads from a secret radio channel, if only because it reminded me a bit of the disc-jockey character, Super Soul, in 1971’s “Vanishing Point.”
I also have a bit of a weakness for Imogen Poots, who plays an expert on high-end cars and ends up joining our hero on his cross-country vendetta. She seems to always be having a good time onscreen, no matter what the role is, and she manages any odd tonal shifts here better than the rest of the cast. Aaron Paul, who is fairly stone-cold serious the whole movie, is stuck playing a type more than a real person, which is disappointing considering the level of talent he’s displayed in something like “Breaking Bad.”
I can’t stress enough how silly the script is, but considering the source material is a plot-less video-game, most people will be going in with their eyes open. Like I mentioned earlier, “Need for Speed” really does deliver on the racing sequences and it’s admirable that Waugh went for the more muscular approach in executing them. Even the things that don’t work in the movie are watchable simply because they’re never exactly boring either. Managing expectations here could lead to a fun time at the movies.