When we first see Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul in Need for Speed, the new action flick from director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) that opens on Friday, he turns around and scowls. It’s a look we got accustomed to seeing in Breaking Bad, the terrific TV drama in which Paul played the conflicted drug addict Jesse Pinkman. But what worked so well for Paul in Breaking Bad doesn’t translate to Need for Speed, a by-the-numbers action film that comes off as a PG version of Fast and Furious. In Need, Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a street racer who’s struggling to keep his auto repair shop open.
The premise is simple. Tobey is the big fish in a small town of street racers. He usually wins the late night races that he and his friends stage, earning enough money to barely keep his small auto repair garage open. But it’s not really enough, and the place is in danger of foreclosure. So when archrival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) offers to give him a percentage of sales from a Mustang if Tobey and his pals will fix it up, he swallows his pride and goes for it. In the process of returning the vehicle, Tobey and his pal Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) end up in an impromptu race with Dino. After Dino forces Pete’s car to flip, killing him in the process and framing Tobey for his death, the rivalry takes on a new dimension.
Flash forward to Tobey’s release from prison and he’s become a man on a mission. But in order to confront Dino, he has to get to California to register for one of the biggest illegal street races in the country. He convinces Brit car dealer Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots) to let him drive the Mustang that he and his crew fixed. The two head out to California on a cross-country trip. While this should be the meat of the movie, we really just see them in Detroit, where Tobey picks up one of his pals, and in Nebraska, where a cop spots Tobey and attempts to detain him while he’s gassing up. Not much of a road trip, though the film’s biggest stunts come in the middle of the desert when Tobey has to have the help of a helicopter to get out of a jam.
Of course, the tight timeframe creates a certain amount of suspense and in one chase scene, Tobey performs an outlandish stunt, footage of which ends up going online and becoming a viral sensation, catching the attention of Monarch (Michael Keaton), a madcap street racing aficionado who hosts a web-based show that chronicles the exploits of racers throughout the country. He utters nonsense like “racers should race and cops should stick to donuts” while providing the color commentary for the big showdown between Dino and Tobey.
Unlike the computer-generated race car scenes in the Fast and Furious films, the chase scenes here seem more realistic, thanks in part to the fact that Waugh likes to captures footage from the drivers’ perspectives. Those camera angles put viewers in the driver’s seat. And the 3-D visuals certainly help bring the chase scenes to life too. But that can hardly redeem this film.
The movie switches focus mid-stream to turn its attention to the burgeoning romance between Tobey and Julia. But in doing so, it backfires and slips into a tailspin from which it can’t recover. While actors such as Scott Mescudi (aka Cleveland-bred rapper Kid Cudi) and Rami Malek successfully provide some comic relief, their roles are so marginal, they don’t contribute much to the film. Mescudi gets the most laughs as Benny, a pilot who often flies above the race routes so he can relay important information regarding traffic jams and police roadblocks. The film could have used more of his antic, even though they sometimes seemed forced (“you should call me Maverick,” he says at one point).
Let’s hope Paul, who has several films slated to come out before the year ends, had some better scripts than this from which to choose. Otherwise, his transition to the silver screen is going to be one rough ride.