Based on a popular series of racing-themed video games, Need for Speed sums up its appeal in the title. An energetic, unpretentious B movie - the kind best seen at a drive-in like the one in an early scene - it is devoted, above all, to the delivery of visceral, kinetic excitement. In the game, you are at the wheel. Watching other people drive is never as much fun, so the movie, directed by Scott Waugh from a script by George Gatins, supplies a few passenger seat distractions. In addition to velocity, you may need some emotion.
So Need for Speed opens up a few generic cans of feeling, the ones labeled Betrayal and Honor. It stirs in characters a bit less distinctive than the average game avatar - a blue-eyed hero, a dark-haired villain, a few funny sidekicks, a girl - and sets them off in pursuit of something vaguely archetypal. ?This is about much more than racing!? someone exclaims. But also much less.
Anyway, the driving is fun to watch, though the 3-D does not add much to the immediacy. The three big races that structure the story are less inventive than the wild traffic violations that propel the hero and his pals from Mount Kisco, N Y, to San Francisco, where a super-important illegal race called the De Leon is scheduled to take place.
The De Leon?s mastermind is a mysterious, talkative fellow known as the Monarch, an Internet phenomenon played with nutty exuberance by Michael Keaton. Exuberance is not a quality associated with Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul, best known for his role in AMC?s Breaking Bad), a Mount Kisco mechanic who hopes to use the De Leon to settle some scores. A local hot shot named Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) stole Tobey?s girlfriend, Anita (Dakota Johnson), and then did some even worse stuff, stuff that wrecked Tobey?s business, landed him in jail and cost the life of one of his friends. Tobey glowers and sighs and speaks in a low, sorrowful rasp.
Assisting Tobey in his quest for payback - for vindication, redemption and the keys to a million-dollar European car - are (in order of importance) a lovingly modified silver Mustang, a wisecracking friend who can fly a plane (Scott Mescudi), two other wisecracking friends who can do other things (Rami Malek and Ramon Rodriguez) and Julia (Imogen Poots), a woman who knows something about cars. Not that much, maybe, and she?s only allowed to drive once, but Poots is a good sport and a deft enough actress to find the balance of silliness and gravity that the movie requires.
Need for Speed is dumb and loud and sometimes technically impressive, which means that it is successful on its own terms. Whether it cashes in on the popularity of the games or of the much stronger and more imaginative Fast & Furious franchise, is a potentially interesting question but not really any of my business. I?m just along for the ride.