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.
"Breaking Bad's" excellent thrill-seeker Aaron Paul is put in so many ludicrous situations — the worst being the googly eyes he has to make behind the wheel every time the engine revs — most will quickly write off the movie. Though I'm betting "Speed" gamers are the forgiving sort.
Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots and Dakota Johnson star in the film alongside a souped-up '70s Ford Mustang that steals all the beauty shots. Though the Lamborghini, Bugatti, Koenigsegg, McLaren and Saleen fight for their star turns, their only real competition is that Ford, supposedly a legendary one modified by car racing royalty Carroll Shelby.
"Act of Valor" director Scott Waugh is the guy in charge of gunning the engines and making sure every possible street-racing scenario is tried. Waugh has a good feel for the cars and action extremes, while director of photography Shane Hurlbut acquits himself nicely. But the screenplay written by George Gatins is full of potholes. The bond between gearheads, as fundamental to "Fast's" appeal as a nitro-injected engine, is nonexistent.
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 "Captain America: The First Avenger" and probably the coming "Captain America: Winter Soldier" as well — is sorely misused. In "Speed," his character is allowed to get away with many bad deeds — by the authorities and the script — but there's nary a clue as to the demons driving his dastardly doings.
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 Zac Efron and "That Awkward Moment" less awkward. In "Speed," she plays feisty Julia Maddon, who locates and buys very fast cars for her high-end car-broker boss.
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 releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times