When EA announced its Need for Speed movie, it seemed like Aaron Paul had made a poor choice for his first post-Breaking Bad role.
Video game adaptations rarely attain even passing mediocrity, and the Need for Speed driving game series doesn't even have a plot to begin with.
But it may have been that very deficit of story that allows the Need for Speed film to not only be good, but to verge on greatness. The nature of Need for Speed allowed writers George and John Gatins and director Scott Waugh to create a completely original film with its own personality and identity, while remaining true to the few things that do consistently characterize the games: fast cars, high speed chases and spectacular crashes. And there's no doubting that this movie is so much better than it has any right to be.
Need for Speed stars Paul as Tobey Marshall, the de facto leader of a well-meaning gang of mechanics, racers and general gearheads that also includes characters played by Kid Cudi, Rami Malek and several others. Cudi in particular stands out from this group as the comic relief in a film that gets surprisingly dramatic, considering it's based on a video game about driving fast. His constant requests that the rest of the gang call him "Maverick" are one example of the many ways Need for Speed somehow makes various cliches feel fresher than they should.
The group has a great dynamic, whether they're in the shop talking shit or on the road in an envoy that, in addition to Paul's heavenly supercars, includes a helicopter and a truck full of gas so they can refuel without stopping. You know, because they have the need for speed.
There's quite a bit of build-up at the beginning, including a small town street race and a tense reunion when Tobey's rival Dino Brewster (played by Dominic Cooper) arrives back in town with a proposition for the gang. They help him fix up a legendary car, a harmless-seeming proposition that inevitably has grave consequences. The build-up eventually pays off, and the real meat of Need for Speed is in Paul and co-star Imogen Poots's well-paced race across the country to get to California in time for a secret underground street race (hosted by a reclusive Michael Keaton) that will ultimately make or break them.
Those words—"underground," "rivals," etc.—keep popping up where Need for Speed is concerned, and it's no coincidence that these are also the subtitles of some of the games in the series. The film constantly pays subtle tribute to the games. You don't think of this series as thematically rich, but they've managed to take the bare bones and stretch them out in ways that don't feel obvious or cheap.
And the cars, the races, the drifting, the stunts—it's all fantastic. Waugh prided himself on using practical stunts—every spectacular, unreal moment of driving in the movie was really performed—and it shows. (Remember, this is the same director who used actual marines to play the soldiers in his movie Act of Valor.) There are minutes-long stretches where the only sounds are engines shifting gears and tires squealing, with no dialogue or music, and they're actually riveting. At one point Cudi's helicopter drags Paul and Poots's car suspended underneath it through the air with nothing but the ground hundreds of feet below. It's so awesome that it doesn't seem real, but it is.
In a lot of ways Need for Speed is completely predictable, from beginning to end. Its themes of rivalry, friendship, revenge, and honor have been retread a million times. It's full of self-important asshole adrenaline junkies with a total disregard for the safety of innocent bystanders. Someone actually says, un-ironically, "We'll settle this behind the wheel."
And yet thanks to the great cast, skillful writing and pacing, and incredible stunts, Need for Speed is full of little surprises that elevate it high above where it has any right to be. Both as a video game adaptation and as a street racing movie, chances are it will pull a fast one and defy your expectations.