It takes a sizeable sack of balls for a car-chase movie like Need for Speed to feature an early scene in which characters are gathered at a drive-in watching Bullitt. The 1968 Steve McQueen cop drama featured one of the most legendary car chases in cinema history through the streets of San Francisco, and while showing a piece of that scene might be considered a hat-tip of respect, it's a metaphorical demonstration of swagger as loud as cars revving at the starting line. "Here's the grand tradition of men and their motors," Need for Speed announces, "and we belong here."
But there's another sense in which that comparison is a risky one: placing Aaron Paul in the same tradition as Steve McQueen. Because as gifted as Paul has shown himself to be — whether in his run on Breaking Bad or in his subsequent indie-film showcase roles like Smashed — there's a difference between being an actor and being a leading man. A movie like Need for Speed — giving Paul his first above-the-title multiplex starring role — certainly depends on energetic showpieces for the vehicles, but it also depends on a certain alpha-male "it" factor in the driver's seat. Does Paul have "it"?
Director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) certainly gives us every indication that we're supposed to think so, introducing Paul's character, Tobey Marshall, with a sweeping hero-pose shot up Paul's body. Tobey's a gearhead in upstate New York trying to keep his family's body shop afloat while scratching out extra money in late-night street races. But his need for cash to save the business leads to an encounter with one-time rival-turned-pro-racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) that ends tragically, with Tobey off to jail. Two years later, his shot at redemption is facing Dino in a secret high-stakes race, driving a legendary, valuable souped-up Mustang cross-country, with the shotgun seat occupied by Julia (Imogen Poots), a flunky of the car's owner.
Yes, that's a crap-load of plot for a fast-driving action narrative, and screenwriter George Gatins takes plenty of time building to the centerpiece coast-to-coast journey, with Tobey's willing wingmen (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek and Ramon Rodriguez) providing cover and support. It's thick with setting up supporting characters — like Tobey's ex-girlfriend/now Dino's girlfriend, Anita (Dakota Johnson) — who ultimately don't matter and trying to mimic that "we're all tough guys, but we're also family" vibe from the Fast & Furious series. Movies about crazy-fast cars driven crazily sure have gotten sensitive all of a sudden.
When veteran stunt coordinator Waugh gets down to the fully analog road action, though, Need for Speed proves surprisingly muscular. The plot throws in pieces of other cranked-up road trip movies, from Vanishing Point to Smokey and the Bandit to Thelma & Louise, and generally shows that it belongs with the big boys as Tobey and Julia try to dodge both the police and the guys after the bounty Dino put on their heads. Our heroes blast through urban streets and rural backroads with a satisfying down-to-earth physicality. It gets both loonier and more conventional by the time the climactic race rolls around — with Michael Keaton providing giddy play-by-play as the race's mysterious maestro — but there's a nuts-and-bolts simplicity to the metal-crunching and wheel-burning, edited together in such a way that, amazingly, you can actually tell what's going on.
Then there's the stuff that happens when cars aren't roaring a couple hundred miles an hour, and that's where Paul has to be the anchor. He's not, however. The gravelly voice and three-day beard are efforts at the requisite "badassitude," and he has a solid chemistry with Poots. Yet Poots demonstrates a charismatic quality Paul just doesn't match; it's like he's a character wearing an "action hero" suit that's the wrong size. Paul's a terrific acting talent, but there's a different set of muscles required to carry a movie like Need for Speed. If you want to know what those muscles look like, the drive-in sequence at the beginning has a rental suggestion for you.