From a racing movie, we've come to expect dumb fun. But the silly action melodrama "Need for Speed" based on EA's popular series of video games drags, and I'm not talking about the races.
Manifestly overlong at 130 minutes, "Need for Speed" includes some eye-popping racing scenes of some very pretty high-performance sports cars. But in a world with thousands of cable channels and six "Fast & Furious" movies (with a seventh on the way), fast cars aren't enough. "Need for Speed" gives it a go, go, go by pulling back on the CGI and staging practical stunt racing, and by casting riding-high actor Aaron Paul in the lead. (The picture has also been postconverted to 3-D, presumably to squeeze some more bucks out of "Breaking Bad" fans who just have to come out and support their boy Paul.)
The problem is that the story and the picture's tone amount to an alternatingly dull or annoying mess of tragic overtones (a little bit of "Noooooooooo!," a lot of brooding), witless comedy (self-described "locker room" banter), and shoehorned romance (the lovers bonding over maniacal driving). It's embarrassingly easy to see each plot development coming, like a lone car on an empty highway. And then there's the fact that the recent death of "Fast & Furious" star Paul Walker in a high-speed accident has harshed the vibe of high-speed recklessness on screen, fairly raising the question: "Too soon?"
Paul plays Tobey Marshall, an amateur racer who has recently inherited Marshall Performance Motors from his late father. Unable to keep up on his bank loan payments, Marshall is prone to betting big on street races, especially against his pro nemesis, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). When Dino murderously "love-taps" off the road the Patroclus to Tobey's Achilles, Tobey winds up framed, imprisoned for two years (which he deserves anyway for insanely reckless driving), and rage-motivated to win vengeance from Dino. Naturally, this takes the form of getting into underground race "the DeLeon," in which winner takes all (the cars): $7 million dollars' worth.
The emphasis on money isn't accidental: Besides serving as blatant advertising for the cars, "Need for Speed" keeps condescendingly underlining how Tobey is the great poor hope "the blue-collar kid!" crows Michael Keaton's Monarch, the man behind the DeLeon and apparently the Wolfman Jack of street racing (Keaton's usually a hoot, but he's at his most annoying here). Speaking of Wolfman Jack, director Scott Waugh (the Navy SEALS ad "Act of Valor") ill-advisedly includes nods to superior vehicular movies "American Graffiti," "Bullitt" and "Speed" not to mention the "Cannonball Run"-ny plot point forcing Tobey to speed from New York to California in 45 hours.
Tobey accomplishes this with love interest Julia (Imogen Poots) who lamely chides him, "Never judge a girl by her Gucci boots" mostly riding shotgun (though she's behind the wheel for off-roading in Monument Valley). And so it goes with the bland characterization and the 234mph: "Need for Speed" is like throwing a pile of car parts at the wall to see what'll stick. Spoiler: nothing.