The most important characters in Need for Speed have four wheels instead of two legs. After all, this cinematic adaptation of the video-game franchise is little more than gearhead pornography, with an emphasis on skid marks and squealing tires over logical storytelling and meaningful relationships — except that of a driver and his gas pedal. At least this latest big-budget entry in the car-chase canon is transparent about those intentions, and its hope that audiences will be so distracted with its impressive array of high-octane muscle cars on display that it won’t care.
The main man behind the wheel is Tobey (Aaron Paul), a mechanic and ex-con lured back to street racing by exacting revenge on Dino (Dominic Cooper), a former business partner who provides further motivation by causing a personal tragedy for Tobey and then framing him for the crime. Combine that with Tobey’s financial troubles and his desire to save his late father’s business, and he quickly rounds up his buddies, a rare and valuable Ford Mustang, and the obligatory alluring female (Imogen Poots), to make last-minute entry in a rules-free road race organized by an underground podcaster (Michael Keaton). The race features plenty of cool drivers and even cooler cars on a rural California highway, where they elude the police and common sense in search of fame and fortune. Is it any wonder who will be the last two standing?
Speed freaks and car aficionados can marvel at the mix of bad boys, pretty girls, and shiny rims. Others might decry the film’s lack of a moral compass as it glorifies recklessness and road rage. Anyone caught in the middle will feel let down by an uninspired plot that is egregiously flimsy and derivative, and exists only to fill in the gaps between the engine revving and trash talking. As the man pushing the buttons on the controller, director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) is a former stuntman who uses those connections in a handful of dazzling action sequences that provide a few superficial pleasures. He employs abundant close-ups and driver point-of-view shots apparently to replicate the experience of the source material.
Loud and proud, Need for Speed is strictly an exercise in style over substance in which the story quickly runs out of gas. The only resonant emotional connection comes in seeing so many of these cars wrecked along the way.