Need for Speed goes nowhere fast.

Need for Speed goes nowhere fast.

Think adapting War and Peace is hard? Try adapting the race car video game Need for Speed. Tolstoy's 1,225-page behemoth has nothing on the Electronic Arts franchise's irreconcilably complicated 20-year, 20-installment history: Sometimes cars are subject to physics; sometimes they aren't. Sometimes they're invulnerable; sometimes they break. Maybe you're in London; maybe the fictional Olympic City. You could have free will to roam; you could be stuck on a track. You could be a car or a human, an outlaw or a cop. With so many alternate realities to please, it's no wonder Scott Waugh's moronic flick has multiple personalities — it's the Sybil of street racing, with a script that doesn't feel so much typed as button-mashed.

Inspired by the first The Fast and the Furious film, itself half-video game, 2003's Need for Speed: Underground introduced the concept of plot to the series. Now the $4 billion-selling video game wants to become its own movie.

Like porn, another art form where characters are blank audience surrogates, the video game version of Need for Speed emphasized action over individuality. The hero was merely called The Player. Now Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) steps into the void. He's at least given a name, Tobey Marshall, but not much else. Tobey is silent, stoic and boring as hell.


Need for Speed

Need for Speed

Directed by Scott Waugh. Written by George Gatins. Starring Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Scott Mescudi, Dakota Johnson, Harrison Gilbertson and Michael Keaton.

Tobey hails from Mount Kisco, New York, a motor-mad hamlet where he and his broke buddies (Kid Cudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) rebuild cars at a struggling garage so decked out in Americana you expect a waitress to roller-skate out with milkshakes. At night, the entire town heads to the drive-in to watch Steve McQueen's Bullitt before powering up some CIA-level spy gear for dangerous drag races through the apocalypse-empty streets. During race one, they almost kill a homeless man. Whatevs, bro. During race two, a daytime dare against black-leather-clad baddie Dino (Dominic Cooper), Tobey drives the wrong way on a highway, causes several bystander wrecks, and watches his friend's car flip over 12 times, tumble over a bridge and burst into flames.

Dino denies he was there. Tobey is imprisoned for manslaughter. Good. Not to be a killjoy, but if filmmakers are going to embed pixel mayhem in the photo-real world, then they're inviting us to ask if this shit is sociopathic. Especially when you use real cars, real wrecks and layer this nonsense with a dramatic, weepy score that sounds like a drama about a dog with cancer. Regardless, we're meant to root for Tobey to avenge his sidekick's death by doing even more of what got him killed. Everyone acts as though they've been huffing diesel fumes. Tobey's friends wear red to the kid's funeral, get engaged to his killer, wander naked through office buildings and steal Apache helicopters. And don't get me started on Tobey fleeing parole for a cross-country drive where he recklessly picks fights with the police.

Two Emmys aside, it's tough to be Aaron Paul. So far, he's proven himself talented at playing one specific character, an antic man-child who bleeds his soul on the screen. He's trying to prove his range, which in the Era of Gosling means frowning, crinkling his eyebrows and glaring over his shoulder. Occasionally, he pants. But he's so action hero-blank it's like Paul is smudging an eraser over Jesse Pinkman when he should write something new over him in bold Sharpie.

The bigger waste is ingenue Imogen Poots as The Babe Who Likes Cars. She's daffy and charming in a part that's further beneath her than skid marks on pavement. In her first scene, she schools Tobey on the horsepower of a rebuilt $2.7 million Mustang, then buys it, and yet still spends the rest of the film being treated like a useless bimbo.

At least Need for Speed is the rare case where the press notes tell the truth. Allow me to quote: "When EA first began thinking about the possibility of bringing their iconic video game to the big screen, they decided to take a proactive approach and not wait for the right script."


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