EARLY in the brainless movie Need for Speed, we see gearhead hero Tobey Marshall attending a drive-in theatre screening of the 1968 Steve McQueen movie Bullitt. This is a car movie, so naturally all we see of it is that hellfor- leather chase scene through the streets of San Francisco.
It's always dangerous when bad movies invoke good ones. The makers of Need for Speed invited the comparison. So allow me to detour on Bullitt:
Sure, that was a great chase scene. But it had other stuff going on. Note the presence of producer Phillip D'Antoni, who later would produce The French Connection, another movie with landmark kick-ass automotive action but also unprecedented grit and tension bought to the police procedural. Both movies hinged on charismatic leads -- McQueen and Gene Hackman -- to sell heroes who might be otherwise be difficult to like.
In Need for Speed, cops only exist to persecute the hero, who already has other problems. Tobey suffers bruised pride at the hands of designated villain Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), the cad who stole his girl. Dino compounds the villainy by challenging Tobey to a potentially profitable race, causing an accident and ditching the scene of the crime to let Tobey take the fall.
Upon being released from jail, Tobey's journey -- and the movie's plot -- lifts from Vanishing Point in its middle third. Tobey is intent on participating in an invitation-only West Coast race run by a zillionaire entrepreneur called Monarch (a particularly embarrassing turn by Michael Keaton). So he has less than 48 hours to get to San Francisco from the East Coast. Along for the rise is a Brit babe named Julia (Imogen Poots), who represents the owner of the car Tobey will be driving: a souped-up Mustang of legendary ancestry. When Brewster hears of Tobey's intentions, he basically puts a bounty on Tobey's head to prevent his participation, while Monarch cheers him on over the radio airwaves.
And now, here's another quick detour on Vanishing Point:
Barry Newman plays existential hero Kowalski on a cross-country journey to deliver a Dodge Challenger to San Francisco, while every cop in the country takes on the challenge of stopping him. Cleavon Little played blind radio DJ Super Soul, who cheers him on over the radio airwaves. It ends... bleakly.
Because its admittedly impressive stunts were all achieved without use of CGI, Need for Speed strenuously clings to its roots, certain movies of the '60s and '70s, but it's a futile gesture. The would-be franchise is adapted from a video game and is not really designed to appeal to fans of Bullitt, The French Connection or Vanishing Point. Director Scott Waugh's ham-handed car caper is here to rake in a little of the gearhead cash the Fast and Furious franchise is making by the truckload. Hot cars going fast, good-looking women, boo-hiss bad guys: shake well.
Aaron Paul, late of Breaking Bad, tries hard -- too hard -- to emulate McQueen's strong, silent badass prototype. When he wants to look tortured or even pissed-off, he just looks like he's suffering the mother of all migraines. Frankly, he was more likable as a meth dealer.
Poots, a likable Brit actress, is also starring in That Awkward Moment. So she's going two for two on crap American movies that fail to utilize her talents. Fire that agent, girl.
If Need for Speed were a car, it wouldn't be a Challenger (insufficiently challenging) or a Mustang. It would be a Viper, the ostentatious clown car of motorized muscle.