Because he made his name as Jesse Pinkman, the meth-dealing, rap-loving partner of Walter White on Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul now runs the risk of being permanently identified with that character. This is hardly the worst fate—he won two Emmys for the role, and the show has entered the pantheon of great television dramas—and it’s no doubt that he wouldn’t have gotten starring film vehicles without the Breaking Bad connection. But his turn in Need for Speed isn’t an incredibly encouraging sign of where he’ll go next. Hardly a car wreck but also not nearly as edgy as it thinks it is, Need for Speed peddles adrenaline with a relentlessness that can be charming. But the film rarely electrifies—more often, it just makes you jittery. And that’s when it’s not outright annoying the hell out of you.
Based on an Electronic Arts game, Need for Speed is directed by Scott Waugh, one of the two directors of 2012’s Act of Valor, a Navy SEAL action movie that featured actual Navy SEALs, real U.S. military equipment and bullets, and no CGI. Authenticity seems to be Waugh’s passion, and in Need for Speed he again aims for a thriller that’s light on phoniness, focusing on practical stunts that make the car chases as believable and tense as possible. (There’s a disclaimer at the end of Need for Speed that warns the audience not to try any of the stunts.) This commitment to authenticity is commendable, but like with Act of Valor, the realism in Need for Speed doesn’t add up to much when the story and characters are so shopworn.
Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a grease monkey in New York State overseeing his family’s auto shop who also likes to engage in illegal street racing. An old nemesis, the successful racer, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), comes to town and offers him a large sum of money to construct a souped-up Mustang that can go faster than the competition. With his shop faltering, Tobey has little choice but to take Dino’s offer.
But after successfully completing the assignment, Tobey runs into tragedy: During a race with Dino, another racer, Tobey’s impressionable young friend, Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), dies in a fiery crash. Although it was Dino’s fault, Tobey is arrested and sent to jail for two years. Once Tobey’s prison term ends, he vows vengeance, signing up to compete in the De Leon, an elite underground car race in which he hopes to defeat Dino.
Need for Speed isn’t just about the De Leon, though: Because Tobey is based on the East Coast, he must quickly drive cross-country in his prized Mustang in two days to be able to enter the West Coast event. And he’s not doing it alone, saddled with Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), a former colleague of Dino’s who represents the parties who paid for Tobey’s Mustang in the first place.
A little bit of Cannonball Run mixed with Death Race, Need for Speed adds an action element to its road-trip narrative by having Dino offer a bounty for anyone who can stop Tobey from making it to De Leon on time. (The race, by the way, is run by a man known simply as the Monarch, played by Michael Keaton with the sort of crazed-genius intensity that can be really cheeky or, in this case, quickly and endlessly tiresome.) These plot niceties, however, are mostly setups for plenty of car stunts in which Tobey and Julia avoid gunshots and other drivers as they make their way to California.
As with Act of Valor, Waugh does show an ability in Need for Speed to create frenetic set pieces. (There’s one here involving a treacherous canyon and a well-timed helicopter that’s so goofy and bravura at the same time you have to laugh at the audacity.) Because these are practical stunts, there is an element of danger that can be thrilling once it becomes clear that the actors themselves are doing some of the stunts.
But what does that matter when the movie’s adrenaline-fueled characters are so repugnant? While Need for Speed talks a good game about Tobey wanting to get back at Dino for violating the racer’s code—“You never leave a man behind”—there’s a willful lack of consideration for everyone else in Tobey’s path. Whether it’s the innocent bystanders during Tobey’s early maniacal street races or his fellow drivers on America’s freeways, the movie shows little regard for other people’s safety: As far as Need for Speed is concerned, they’re merely background avatars in Tobey’s super-rad chase sequences. The filmmakers position Tobey and his grease-monkey buddies (including Rami Malek and Scott Mescudi) as fun-loving, free-spirited daredevils, but in truth, they’re jerks, and their bratty disregard of polite society really just a lot of misanthropic, macho posturing. (Jesse Pinkman would love this movie.)
It’s not that Need for Speed isn’t intermittently exciting: Waugh’s unyielding propulsion can put a boost in you. But he continues to show no aptitude for character development, and his stories tend to galumph along from incident to incident. Paul, so vulnerable and funny in Breaking Bad, is again playing a badass but one who isn’t remotely as layered. He and Poots flirt in that most tiresome of ways, between (and sometimes during) moments of danger. (Tobey doesn’t want Julia in the car, but she’s too stubborn to be scared off by his he-man driving.) Watching Need for Speed is to be reminded that great actors need great material to shine. Otherwise, they’re just spinning their wheels.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Scott Waugh
Writers: George Gatins (screenplay); George Gatins & John Gatins (story)
Starring: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Scott Mescudi, Dakota Johnson, Harrison Gilbertson, Michael Keaton
Release Date: Mar. 14, 2014