Aaron Paul is barely visible behind the wheel in the cross country car picture "Need for Speed." Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon
'Need for Speed' Director: Scott Waugh Stars: Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
Video games have had an awful time translating into movies, but not because they don’t try. If anything they try too hard. The plot of the 1993 “Super Mario Bros.” film — based on a sidescroller about two plumbers jumping on evil turtles — is so knotty it could make a PhD student’s head implode, “Scanners”-style. Similarly, an entire review could be eaten up explaining the convoluted mechanics required just to get “Need for Speed” going.
Based on a long-running EA game about racing cars really fast, it can’t just put lead Aaron Paul behind the wheel. He has to lose a friend, be framed for a federal crime, serve time, then be on the wrong coast where a hotly anticipated (and breathtakingly illegal/dangerous) competition is taking place, which means he has to race to get to another, actual race. And he can’t just drive to win. He has to do it as a form of elaborate, semi-sensical revenge.
Paul plays Tobey, one of those blue-collar fancy-car mechanic types who also happens to be an excellent driver. He’s eventually — very eventually — put inside a souped-up vehicle along with a car company stooge (another long story) played by talented British actress Imogen Poots. This is a boy’s club, but Poots’ Julia can hold her own; she knows cars, or says she does. Truth is she freaks anytime Tobey goes over 200, and panics the one time she takes over for him — because, incidentally, Tobey never needs sleep.
Despite the torturous twisting to get Tobey behind the wheel, it doesn’t do much once he’s there. Periodically he has to out-speed an easily-felled cop. His nemesis, a fellow racer/car enthusiast played by Dominic Cooper, puts out a bounty on his head, but that only results in a single, okay attack. The “Fast & Furious” pictures are elemental, but at least they pair driving with silly heist action.
But, you’re asking, does the car go really, really, really fast? Yes. It goes super, mega, ultra fast, and is at one point picked up by a helicopter. In the fantasy realm of “Need for Speed,” there aren’t other drivers on country highways, nor pedestrians on city streets. Paul and company hit the metal no matter where they are, never faced with avoiding nice grandmas or strollers. (They do smash into a homeless guy’s shopping cart, but the characters and the filmmakers think that’s funny.)
There are some pretty shots of careening vehicles — but also butt-ugly ones. Paul’s car is so small that the cinematographer can barely get an iconic driving shot. Worst of all, the director — Scott Waugh, of the army drama/recruitment film “Act of Valor” — orders digital cameras strapped to the cars, to be used for Xtreme collision shots. The use of real scars and real stunts is appreciated, but the film lacks the bold simplicity of the classics it wants to draw from, like "Vanishing Point." Waugh is not a “chaos” director, but nor is he very clean, and the driving ever so slightly favors cheap adrenaline rushes over coherence.
This doesn’t leave much room for the performers, although Michael Keaton does some old fashioned Michael Keaton freaking out as an Internet star racing nut. Paul meanwhile fails at being a mere taciturn tough guy. On “Breaking Bad” he only got withdrawn and quiet when he was about to blow. Here he’s tasked only to recycle the moody glowering bits, plus two or three anguished “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”s to the heavens. Paul is too good an actor to have only two character traits, and you can see him antsy, wanting to break out, do something, anything. While the film drives in circles, he’s stuck in neutral.