The need for speed is not a new desire. Cinematically speaking, the most famous example of the addiction was shared by Maverick and Goose in Top Gun nearly three decades ago. Borrowing bits from that, and several other velocity-centric films, Need for Speed adds little to carsploitation cinema. It attempts to be a souped-up hybrid of genre classics like Vanishing Point and the modern Fast & Furious franchise, but winds up stuck in the middle of the road. Despite a glut of impressive stunt driving and practical effects, the film is slowed by leaden pacing and an overstuffed plot. In trying to include signature moments for gearheads, genre cinephiles, and fans of the videogame series that gives it its title, Need for Speed is crushed under its own weight.
Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is somewhat of a local legend in Mt. Kisco, New York – a talented driver who never got a break and now runs a garage. In typical put-upon hero fashion, the bank is poised to take the property. Opportunity comes along in the form of Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper); another local racer who hit it big (“He raced at Indianapolis!”), but never had the respect of his racing brethren. If Tobey helps Dino rebuild a historically significant Ford Mustang, he’ll get a percentage of the profits from its sale.
Instead of leaving well enough alone after a hefty payday, a street race is staged for the entire pot. The race ends in tragedy, and the Teflon Dino races back to his millions while the unlucky Tobey is sent to prison. Upon release, Tobey has only a couple days to speed across the country and enter a legendary race in California run by the mysterious Monarch (Michael Keaton). There he hopes to gain vindication and revenge against his rival. The owner of the aforementioned Mustang allows Tobey to borrow the car, but only if he takes Jane (Imogen Poots) along to ensure its safety. Now, it’s a race to: earn entry into the race, make it to the race, and then win the race.
And that’s just the half of it. Besides the obligatory budding romance between Tobey and Jane, there’s a momentum-killing episodic nature to the film as it flounders in the downtime between car stunts. While Paul, Poots, and Cooper are all well-cast and perform their duties admirably, they’re surrounded with too much fluff to shine. Diversions that take away from the central revenge tale include an inexplicable sequence where a member of Tobey’s Mt. Kisco crew (Rami Malek) strips naked while quitting his soul-sucking office job to rejoin the racing team. Dino’s motivations for taking part in the big final race are unclear, though it’s clumsily implied that his business is losing money. His decision to keep a crucial piece of evidence that proves Tobey’s innocence and his guilt is handled with numbing dialogue that is the norm in George Gatins’ screenplay.
The bloat is made more curious when considering the obvious care and craft that went into the car sequences. If this were a 90-minute exploitation/revenge film that better showcased a thrilling dash from a swarm of cops in downtown Detroit or a fun escape from a state trooper at a truck stop, we may have something. Instead, Need for Speed is a two-hour-plus slog. There is so much going on that Michael Keaton’s character is there mainly to provide commentary and help the audience make sense of everything – and to wear quasi-cool sunglasses. His scenes from behind a microphone and banks of monitors feel awkwardly shoehorned into the action. Even within the exhilarating moments, director Scott Waugh can’t help himself from pushing things too far. Benny (Scott Mescudi), Tobey’s pilot buddy, literally flies into and out of the picture as needed to save the day. Apparently, he is able to commandeer a news copter and a military cargo chopper with ease, showing up in Detroit or the middle of the southwestern desert in the nick of time.
From New York, to Detroit, to the Bonneville Salt Flats, to San Francisco – there’s never been a more indirect route (geographically or narratively) taken to a climax where the outcome is never in doubt. And a climax that, in keeping with the cadence of the film, is thrilling when it’s in gear but is paused to wrap up plot strings. If a need for speed were applied to the script and the editing, it may have uncovered a fun film buried in the muck.