Here’s what you do: See Need for Speed in 3-D in the biggest theater imaginable, but bring along a pair of noise-canceling headphones, the kind you can turn on and off. Then — and I’m serious about this — just turn them on every time anyone in the movie opens their mouth. You don’t want to hear the dialogue, but you do want to hear the incredible sound design — the supercars that rumble, grumble, screech, and scream as they careen down highways and spin around corners. Based on the popular video games, this is a movie with breathtakingly visceral racing scenes, and they are matched by a breathtakingly, breathtakingly terrible script.
Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a talented, all-American racer and auto-shop owner whose modest background has prevented him from hitting the big time on the illegal racing circuit; if he wants to “fly with the eagles,” we’re told early on, he’s “gonna need a bigger set of wings.” Tobey’s rival in both cars and women, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) did make it big, and, of course, he’s the kind of swarthy fellow who thinks nothing of committing murder to get his way. So, Dino causes the death of a close friend of Tobey’s during a drag race and frames Tobey for the incident. (He can do that, because he’s all-powerful, and there were no witnesses, even though they were racing down busy streets in broad da…aah, I digress.)
You’d think that seeing his best friend burnt to a crisp in a comically fiery car crash would make Tobey think twice about racing again (or at least haunt him in some way), but no. After spending two years in prison, Tobey gets out and immediately decides to challenge Dino at an illegal, high-stakes drag race known as DeLeon, run by a mysterious, full-of-it radio personality known as Monarch (Michael Keaton, who must have stipulated in his contract that he would never have to leave his chair). But before he can join the race — or even find out its specific location — Tobey has to Cannonball Run it across the country, driving to California from New York in 45 hours. For his ride, he’s got a mythical car: a Ford Mustang that the legendary designer Carroll Shelby was working on when he died. For his companion, he’s got the beautiful Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), a game, quirky car nerd who works with the guy who technically owns the Mustang. Together, they speed nonstop, re-fuel while driving, and cause automotive chaos in major American cities.
Need for Speed gets some of the cooler details of this world right: The Cessnas in the air looking out for clear lanes and cops, the high-tech nature of modern illegal street racing, etc. Director Scott Waugh, who came up through the stunt world, thrives on that kind of authenticity. His previous film, 2012’s Act of Valor, was a glorified, but effective, Navy SEAL recruitment video, sporting action scenes starring real soldiers using real live ammunition. And you need not read promo copy to know that Need for Speed’s stunts are largely real and not computer-generated. The cars have weight and presence; when they zoom down a road, or fly off a hill, you can tell you’re not looking at pixels but at real metal, rubber, asphalt, and dirt.
However, that attention to realism backfires when it comes to the inane plot and idiotic dialogue. Example: When we first meet Julia, she faux-naively asks our heroes if a 900 horsepower car is fast. When, just two lines later, she predictably unleashes her impressive automotive knowledge, the men are thunderstruck. It’s supposed to be a gotcha moment for our heroes, a gentle poke at their sense of macho entitlement. “Why? Is it because I’m a woman?” she asks them, pointedly. But you want to scream, “No, it’s because you just asked if 900 horsepower was ‘fast,’ lady!” Little amateur mistakes like these add up.
It might have all held together with a charismatic lead, but Paul, a talented actor who played well off Bryan Cranston’s alpha-male presence in Breaking Bad, can’t seem to make Tobey the least bit interesting. He’s not a likable character to begin with — his hubristic fixation on racing is never questioned, only indulged and applauded — but he doesn’t have the outlaw whiff of an antihero either. He’s a bland, blond, blue-eyed ball of nothing here, and that makes it hard to care what happens to him, or to anybody else.
But racing movies are supposed to be stupid, right? They’re supposed to not make any sense and make you chuckle at their silliness. True, and Need for Speed has an idea of the kind of stupid movie it wants to be. But stupidity and incompetence are two very different things, and this movie isn’t smart enough to be as stupid as it wants. Say what you will about the Fast & Furious films, but they fully embrace their cartoonish, CGI ethos: The cars feel like feathers and the stories like fairy tales; it’s a whole ecosystem of artificiality. Need for Speed, by contrast, gives us some of the most striking racing scenes ever committed to film, while making us yearn for the nuance and characterization of a video game. It whipsaws us between the impressively real and the hopelessly fake.