“Need for Speed,” a tricked-up, morally dubious video-game spinoff about driving cars really, really fast while cops and citizens crash into trees behind you, is made possible by three things: the success of the “Fast and Furious” series, the rise of “Breaking Bad” costar Aaron Paul, and a 1971 vroom-vroom classic called “Vanishing Point.”
Last things first. In “Vanishing Point,” the stoic Vietnam vet hero (Barry Newman) had to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger V8 halfway across the country, chased by the police and egged on by a blind DJ (Cleavon Little) who knew a bid for existential freedom when he (didn’t) see one. In “Need for Speed,” the stoic small-town ex-con Tobey Marshall (Paul) has to drive a Ford Mustang V8 all the way across the country, chased by the police and egged on by Monarch (Michael Keaton), a reclusive racing impresario who broadcasts a live webstream that’s watched by every gearhead on the planet.
The similarities end there, although it has to be said that Keaton, who probably filmed his scenes in a couple of hours, in one chair, using one fisheye lens, gives the part his spittle-spewing all. Maybe he’s doing the acting for everyone else in the movie, since Paul, so skeevily lovable as Jesse Pinkman, Walter White’s second banana and damaged conscience, shuts down and plays terse, a la Ryan Gosling in “Drive.” The most interesting thing about the character is the Pinkman-esque doubt that keeps leaking into Tobey’s eyes, but the movie’s not interested in that. He’s just our game avatar.
The speed king of Mount Kisco, N.Y., Tobey rules over late-night drag races with the support of his crew: mechanic Joe (Ramon Rodrigues), wingman Finn (Rami Malek), and flyboy Benny (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. rapper Kid Cudi), the latter advising the drivers of police roadblocks and pesky pedestrians from up high in his Cessna. There’s also Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), who’s such an annoying variant on the “kid” stereotype that you pray the filmmakers will find a way to remove him from the proceedings. Sometimes prayers are answered.
Local bad boy-turned-pro racer Dino (Dominic Cooper, leaving his British accent in the glove compartment) finds a way to send Tobey to jail for two years, from which our hero emerges with even less expressiveness than before and a burning need for revenge. He commandeers that Mustang and heads west to join Monarch’s illegal race, joined by his boys and an English car freak named Julia (Imogen Poots). All that’s missing is Clyde the orangutan from Clint Eastwood’s “Every Which Way But Loose,” which, trust me, this movie could have used.
Instead, we get some mild getting-to-know-you romantic comedy between Tobey and Julia — the uninhibited Poots is the most enjoyable part of the movie — standard B-movie dialogue, a lot of car talk, and the main order of business: high-speed races and chases, all conducted in 3-D, on open highways, amid normal traffic patterns. If you know your muscle cars and Euro supercars and don’t care too much about other people, “Need for Speed” will definitely be your bottle of Yahoo. Pardon the rest of us, then, if we look on these self-absorbed camshaft brats, high-fiving each other as police cars burst into flame and family minivans veer off the highways in panic, and wish them a speedy flat tire and a remedial driver’s-ed class. The film ends with the usual kids-don’t-try-this-at-home warning, but it’s too late: The Mustang has already left the barn.
Dakota Johnson’s limp supporting performance as Tobey’s ex-girlfriend does not bode well for the upcoming “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Paul, by contrast, will survive, especially if someone gets him into a comedy or the kind of drama where he can tend to a character’s flaws. If any actor needed a slow-moving vehicle, it’s him.