‘Need for Speed’ Threatens to Stall Aaron Paul’s Film Career

When we first see Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul in Need for Speed, the new action flick from director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor), he turns around and scowls. It’s a look we got accustomed to seeing in Breaking Bad, the terrific TV drama in which Paul played the conflicted drug addict Jesse Pinkman.

But what worked so well for Paul in Breaking Bad doesn’t translate to Need for Speed, a by-the-numbers action film that comes off as a PG-13-rated version of Fast and Furious.

In Need, Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a street racer who’s struggling to keep his auto repair shop open. Paul can’t carry the ill-conceived movie but that might not entirely be his fault. The film has such a simple, stupid storyline, it’s not even a good guilty pleasure.

Here’s the premise: Tobey is the big fish in a small town of street racers. He usually wins the late night races that he and his friends stage, earning barely enough money to keep his garage’s doors open. Even so, the place is in danger of foreclosure. So when archrival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) offers to give him a percentage of sales from a Mustang if Tobey and his pals will fix it up, he swallows his pride and goes for it. In the process of returning the vehicle, Tobey and his pal Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) end up in an impromptu race with Dino. After Dino forces Pete’s car to flip, killing him in the process and framing Tobey for his death, the rivalry takes on a new dimension.

Flash forward to Tobey’s release from prison and he’s become a man on a mission. But in order to confront Dino, he has to get to California to register for one of the biggest illegal street races in the country. He convinces Brit car dealer Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots) to let him drive the Mustang that he and his crew fixed. The two head out to California on a cross-country trip. While this should be the meat of the movie, we really just see them in Detroit, where Tobey picks up one of his pals, and in Nebraska, where a cop spots Tobey and attempts to detain him while he’s gassing up. Not much of a road trip, though it does provide context for the flick’s biggest stunts, which occur in the middle of the desert and involves the help of a helicopter to get Tobey out of a jam.

Of course, the tight timeframe creates a certain amount of suspense and in one chase scene, Tobey performs an outlandish maneuver that ends up online and becomes a viral sensation, catching the attention of Monarch (Michael Keaton), a madcap street racing aficionado who hosts a web-based show that chronicles the exploits of racers throughout the country. He utters nonsense like “racers should race and cops should stick to donuts” while providing the color commentary for the big showdown between Dino and Tobey.

Unlike the computer-generated racecar scenes in the “Fast and Furious” films, the chase scenes here seem more realistic, thanks in part to the fact that Waugh likes to put viewers in the driver’s seat. The 3-D visuals certainly help bring the chase scenes to life, too. But neither effort redeems this film.

Even worse, the movie switches focus mid-stream to turn its attention to the burgeoning romance between Tobey and Julia. In doing so, it backfires and slips into a tailspin from which it can’t recover. While actors like Scott Mescudi (aka rapper Kid Cudi) and Rami Malek successfully provide some comic relief, their roles are so marginal that they don’t contribute much to the film. Mescudi gets the most laughs as Benny, a pilot who often flies above the race routes so he can relay important information regarding traffic jams and police roadblocks. The film could have used more of his antics, even though they sometimes seemed forced (“You should call me Maverick,” he says at one point).

Let’s hope Paul—who has several films slated to come out before the year ends—had some better scripts than this from which to choose. Otherwise, the transition to the silver screen is going to be one rough ride.

Need for Speed

Dir. Scott Waugh; Writ. George Gatins; Feat. Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Scott Mescudi (PG-13)
Opens March 14