The first thing to know about "Need for Speed" is this: It's no "Fast & Furious."
In trying for the vicarious varoom of the street-racing video game that inspired it, and no doubt dreaming of "Fast" success, "Speed" clocks in at a long two-plus hours and falls painfully short.
No one is asking for actual logic in these films. Part of the fun is seeing how far from reality the freewheeling stunts can take it. But a sense of the absurdity of the absurd is most definitely required too.
A glimmer of that exists in the half-mad eyes of the Monarch, a mysterious street-racing titan played with a growling sarcasm by Michael Keaton. The Monarch seems to have a radio show — whatever. The onetime driver now spends his days behind a console watching live video of illegal street races, giving the play by play to his followers, assessing the odds, guessing at motivations.
He also controls the most coveted underground street racing invite around — the De Leon. It's unsanctioned, dangerous, with a big jackpot, and only a handful of the best from around the world get a ticket to ride.
But first there is a deadly street-racing accident that puts Tobey Marshall (Paul) behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Two years later the muscle car mechanic comes out with the grudge necessary to drive the action that follows. That involves settling old scores, restoring his reputation, getting a car, getting across country, getting another car, maybe getting the girl. But most of all he must drive, baby, drive.
An issue of class is seeded in, the long road divided between the haves and the have-nots, which is where you will find the street racing crowd. Tobey's the talented blue-collar driver who stayed in the small town running the family garage with a bunch of his buddies. The best is Benny (Scott Mescudi). A master detailer with a penchant for flying "borrowed" aircraft, he is responsible for most of the movie's comic relief. Orchestrating increasingly incredulous fly-overs as he scouts routes for Tobey, Benny provides some of the most exciting action as well.
The haughty, hated Dino Brewster (Cooper) is the guy who shed the small-town life, making a name and big money on the NASCAR circuit. He also got the girl, or one of them. Anita (Johnson) used to be sweet on Tobey, now she's hanging on Dino's arm. Cooper, who generally makes an excellent villain — see
A little redemption is brought by Poots. In whatever role she is given, the British actress ups the quality level any time she's on screen, most recently making
She's quickly on Tobey's side even when it seems as if he doesn't want her there. Sparks fly, sort of. Their cross-country race to get Tobey and the Mustang into the De Leon is among the movie's best moments.
The rest of the best is thanks to the daredevil stunts and the drivers who execute them. But "Need for Speed" needs a lot more than fast cars and cool crashes to make it a winner.
'Need for Speed'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: In general release