Aaron Paul helps kick ‘Speed’ into gear

March 12, 2014

Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Since the jury is still out on whether filmmakers can successfully adapt a video game into a critically acclaimed film, to say that “Need for Speed” may be the best adaptation so far is a backhanded compliment. For better or worse, the film is essentially a guilty pleasure flick for auto-racing enthusiasts.

In one of his first roles since “Breaking Bad,” Aaron Paul brings charisma to the flat character of Tobey, a mechanic by day and competitive racer by night, who, along with his protégé Pete, accepts a race challenge from car entrepreneur Dino, played by Dominic Cooper.

During the race, Dino hits Pete’s car, which crashes and burns with Pete inside, and drives off before the police arrive. Tobey remains behind screaming in agony, and the police mistakenly arrest him for Pete’s murder, for which he serves two years in prison.

After his release, Tobey makes a road trip from New York to California, not only to defeat Dino in the renowned Deleon Race, but also to get his revenge. When Dino learns about Tobey’s plan, he puts a bounty out on Tobey’s head and our hero’s road trip becomes even more sinister.

“Need For Speed” does not pretend to stick closely to reality, but some of the stunts are unbelievable even for an action-packed video game movie. Characters drive at high speeds into oncoming traffic on a highway without crashing, pump gas into a moving car at 100 mph and carry a car over a canyon with a helicopter and two steel cables.

Despite cheesy dialogue and two-dimensional characters, the talented actors do their best to save the material. In addition to  Paul, Imogen Poots brings some magnetism to her generic character, a car-savvy sidekick on Tobey’s quest for vengeance.

Tobey’s team of gearheads, played by Kid Cudi, Ramon Rodriguez and Rami Malek, genuinely feel like long-time buddies during their banter. Though Cooper’s performance is not nearly as strong as the others’, he manages to keep his character leveled and avoids becoming the mustache-twirling villain he easily could have been. As the eccentric host of the Deleon Race, even Michael Keaton, for all of his over-the-top antics, has his moments.

Combine these performances with some impressive high-octane racing scenes along with a good sense of humor, “Need for Speed” works on the level of an entertaining B movie, despite its multimillion-dollar budget.

Director Scott Waugh’s choice to avoid the use of computer-generated images during the racing scenes in favor of practical stunts makes “Need for Speed” feel like a throwback to the classic car films from the ’60s and ’70s. The only fundamental issue not related to the film’s B-movie quality is the 130-minute runtime, which could have been trimmed down significantly.

The best way to watch this film would be on a weekend with your buddies after a long week of work. And, if you find yourself hooting and hollering at the screen, do not be ashamed — the film practically begs for it.

A version of this article appeared in the March 13 print edition.  Zack Grullon is a staff writer.  Email him at film@nyunews.com.

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