It takes a lot for a film based on a video game to impress a crowd these days, given the dazzling advancements in gaming technology. But "Need for Speed," based on the hit EA Entertainment racing game that's sold 150 million units, could now drive some of that success toward the box office.
Despite its clichéd elements, this adrenaline-fueled stunt fest is an unequivocal thrill that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Starring "Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul, "Need for Speed" is fiercely entertaining, loaded with beautiful cars, winding roads and racers in leather coats.
Since "Breaking Bad" ended last year, Paul has been making an impressive transition to film, starting with the indie drama "Hellion," which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. In "Need for Speed," he flexes his machismo as a street racer on a vendetta.
Following a two-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit, mechanic and race driver Tobey Marshall (Paul) is determined to get revenge on Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), the man who framed him. To do so, Tobey drives from New York to California to battle Dino in a high-stakes race dubbed the De Leon.
Along for the ride are British car buff Julia (Imogen Poots) and Benny (Scott Mescudi, also known as recording artist Kid Cudi), the jovial airborne lookout of Tobey's crew.
Written by first-timer George Gatins, who produced "She's Out of My League," the plot is heavy with questionable logic and monotonous dialogue. Modeled after classic 1960s and 1970s action films, where the cars were key, "Need for Speed" often attempts to be a dramatic thriller. But it's best when consciously comical. Trite conventions, like Tobey's brooding demeanor, punctuated by his deep monotone and acute stare, are effective, although overdone at times.
But Tobey isn't always serious. When riding cross-country, the eccentric Julia gets him to loosen up. Their banter offers cute comedic relief and sets the stage for romance. Long gone are thoughts of his ex, Anita, played by upcoming "Fifty Shades of Grey" star Dakota Johnson, who tests out her siren potential - and achieves it. But it's the sexy, witty and accessible Poots who really shines. Michael Keaton, as the ridiculously animated mystery man behind the De Leon race, is another highlight.
Compared to the "Fast & Furious" franchise by way of fast cars, harrowing races and a band of brothers connected mostly by loyalty, not blood, "Need for Speed" is more like an underdeveloped sibling. It lacks the brutal and brawny gentleman quotient, perhaps the most delicious feature of "Furious." Still, the boyish good looks of Paul and Cooper are appealing. But could they really save us in a pinch? Vin Diesel's Dom in "Furious" seems more reliable.
Easily the best parts of this ride are the thrilling stunts and races. Stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh puts us right in the driver's seat as cars exceed 120 mph and spin through the air. First-person camera angles keep the action immediate and personal, just like the video game. Additionally, overhead views offer a sweeping scope of the races as the drivers speed past vineyards in California's Mendocino County, where the De Leon race scenes were filmed.
Though the pace remains mostly high-octane throughout, it drags in the beginning and during the final face-off. But overall, this flashy underworld of super-charged machinery and intense action is a blast.
"Need for Speed," a DreamWorks release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language." Running time: 130 minutes. Three stars out of four.