When we last saw Aaron Paul, as Jesse, Walter White’s meth-cooking apprentice in AMC’s Breaking Bad, he was driving through a chain-link fence and racing away in the night from the mass carnage that Walt had unleashed. In Need for Speed, the new film in which Paul stars, we see him once again with the pedal to the metal.
In fact, this feels like exactly the kind of movie Jesse might enjoy imagining himself starring in: a cross between a fifties teen melodrama and a video game. Need for Speed is adapted from an Electronic Arts game series. At 130 minutes, it feels like 90 minutes of stunt driving and 40 of preposterous plot – including a long stretch of engine revving before we get to the good stuff.
Paul plays Tobey Marshall, who runs a custom auto shop in rural New York State and races in the streets at night with his crew. The boys include the angel-faced Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), Tobey’s sassy daredevil friend (Rami Malek), his tech-savvy friend (Ramon Rodriguez) and a convenient buddy in the air force reserve named Maverick (hip-hop star Scott Mescudi) who flies overhead in helicopters and small planes to monitor traffic conditions for the racers. Life is good, full of fresh grease and good buddies, though the custom shop is going broke.
Enter Tobey’s arch rival, professional racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who some years before, took off with Tobey’s girlfriend, Anita (Dakota Johnson). Dino, who has a filthy rich uncle, has acquired a Ford Mustang prototype that was being built by legendary auto designer Carroll Shelby just before he died in 2012. If Tobey can finish the car, he can have a 25 per cent cut of its $2- to $3-million sale to an English owner. Instead of paying out, the sneaky Dino challenges Tobey and Little Pete to a winner-take-all race. Each man will drive a Swedish Koenigsegg Agera R “supercar” through the country roads terrorizing other drivers. When a spectacular flip and crash sends Little Pete to the great race circuit in the sky, Tobey is framed on a man-slaughter charge.
Two years later he emerges, determined to show Dino who’s the better driver and to avenge Little Pete’s death. His big opportunity is a super-lucrative, highly illegal, street race in California called the De Leon. First Tobey has to hightail it across the country in just 45 hours in that same Shelby Mustang he previously finished, which the new owner has agreed to lend him for a piece of the purse. The condition is that the owner’s associate, Julia (Imogen Poots) must go along as his “right seat driver.”
Poots (A Late Quartet, 28 Weeks Later) gets to use her British accent here, and though she initially comes off as a toff, she soon reveals she adores the grind of gears and stench of burning rubber as deeply as Tobey does. He’s grumpy, she’s feisty, and they squabble cutely, hurtle through the air over traffic in Detroit (no, it doesn’t make sense they would pass through Detroit), outwit state troopers in Nebraska and elude hired killers in Utah. They even manage some brief physical contact when they switch seats, without stopping, to let Julia drive for a spell.
Finally, they arrive in San Francisco the night before the big race, though, by this time we’ve expended a lot of exhaust and the showdown is more like a car-show parade than a credible contest. There are sleek and growling Bugattis, Camaros and Lamborghinis whipping through the California forests and coastal vistas, and frequent crashes and harassment from enough policemen to comprise an invasion force.
Every stage of the race and chase is announced on a webcast conducted by the secret impresario of the illegal De Leon race, a billionaire car enthusiast known as the Monarch, who “nobody knows.” Actually, the Monarch is clearly visible in a corner of the computer screen and he’s played, with jive-spouting brio by Michael Keaton. Hey, the movie isn’t called Need for Logic.
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A previous version of this article stated that the TV show Breaking Bad originated on the network HBO. In fact it originated on AMC.