Dreamworks Pictures

Fast cars. Illegal street racing. Family and revenge. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? No, Fast and Furious Seven hasn’t come out yet; we’re talking about Need for Speed, the first film entry of Electronic Arts’ long-racing video game franchise, best known for taking players off the speedway and onto the highway, where commuters sharing the road and police in hot pursuit provide as much hazard to victory as your competitors.

In Need for Speed, Aaron Paul is an automobile mechanic who moonlights as a crack street racer who missed his chance at stardom thanks to the (never revealed, but we assume evil) machinations of his pro racer rival Dominic Cooper. When Cooper fatally runs Paul’s ex-girlfriend’s little brother off the road during an impromptu grudge match, Aaron is framed and spends two years in jail. (We assume he was convicted of reckless endangerment or some other lesser crime that only merits a two-year sentence.) Cooper, meanwhile, only gets richer. (Maybe. Vague financial woes seem to plague every character in the film.) Leaving jail after a two-year jump cut, Paul aims to enter the De Leon, the most famous of all underground street races, to clear his name and/or avenge his fallen friend... somehow.

The Courteous Take

It’s a mouthful to describe, but mostly amounts to a handful of glossy, earnest, and sometimes genuinely entertaining racing sequences, punctuated by flat and boring interludes that are supposed to pass for plot. They don’t. The characters are puddle-deep—he’s gruff and grungy, she’s British and blonde, and the bad guy is… bad.

Their motivations never add up to more than going through the motions, so much so that every time Aaron Paul and his lover-to-be discuss that his quest is (or isn’t!) about avenging his fallen friend, we get the feeling that they (and the writers) are trying to convince themselves as much as the audience.

I don’t think anyone knew what this movie was supposed to be.

Let’s not even get me started on the overtly manipulative score, which kicks in with a bombastic (and stylistically inappropriate) string section every time we’re supposed to infer emotional goings-on. Sometimes they almost convince you that you’re feeling something, but you aren’t, and their presence reveals the empty heart of the film:

I don’t think anyone knew what it was supposed to be. It isn’t a tale of honor among criminals, like Fast and Furious. It isn’t a tale of vengeance, or of setting right past wrongs. It isn’t even a tale about winning a race.

Maybe that’s why when Aaron Paul wins his big race (spoiler?), it doesn’t feel victorious at all. Or maybe it’s because he’s immediately arrested and sent back to jail, this time for illegal street racing. While Paul is being handcuffed, face down in the dirt, yellow-bespectacled Michael Keaton (who plays the film’s nebulous quasi-narrator and… god) drones that Paul will have to decide whether going to jail for a few months was worth proving his innocence.

Laying aside that he could easily have proven his innocence without ever taking part in the De Leon at all, it’s hard not to feel like Mr. Keaton has forgotten entirely that Paul already spent two years in jail on a false accusation, not an hour earlier.

Then again, it’s hard to blame him. I suspect I’ll forget all about Aaron Paul’s troubles in a day or two.

The Savage Rejoinder

Need for Speed needed to distinguish itself from its genre peers if it was going to stand out. Sadly, it never takes the necessary risks. Its rote formula makes it impossible to care about the characters or feel any sense of satisfaction when they achieve their nebulous goal. (What are they aiming for, anyway? Revenge? Justice? Wealth?)

Aaron Paul plays the universally familiar strong, silent type. His “right-seater” and vaguely rich car dealer Imogen Poots is pretty and mildly sassy. These walking (well, driving) missed opportunities are supported by a crew of one-dimensional characters that add little flavor to the mix. The only name I could even remember was the one that was made into a running joke throughout the film.

But, some of the driving scenes are a blast to watch, even if they’re not terribly creative. The cross-country road trip that makes up the middle of the film offers some fun chase sequences that are thrilling to anyone not overthinking things.

Not only ultimately pointless but also almost comically predictable.

Sure, things take a turn for the ridiculous when our heroes are set upon by a group of bounty hunters who may have taken a wrong turn on their way to the set of the Road Warrior reboot, but those looking to see a cool car tear up the road and leave a big mess behind will not be disappointed.

In the races themselves, however, the action falls flat. The opener throws every cheesy video game obstacle imaginable at the drivers. Perhaps it was meant as an homage to the game, but it just doesn’t work on film, and even feels mean-spirited at times, like when Aaron Paul slams into a homeless man’s cart, scattering its contents to the wind, and later casually laughs it off.

The De Leon is not only ultimately pointless but also almost comically predictable, and only feels dangerous because of the over-the-top interference of the police, whose superiors quickly authorize the use of lethal force against the street racers as they zip through the California countryside.

Anyone looking for a fun and harmless way to kill a couple of hours could do worse than Need for Speed. Just don’t expect it to move you.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Looking for a film that blends heartfelt family drama and earned character interactions with over-the-top racing action and a final race sequence that will have you on your feet and cheering? Look no further than Wachowski Starship’s 2008 Speed Racer, available everywhere.