You wouldn't think Aaron Paul could be more of a menace to society than he was cooking meth in "Breaking Bad."
In his first big role, post-Jesse Pinkman, he's rolling fast and furious on the streets with little regard for what's in his way. If you've played "Need for Speed" or similar racing games, you know there are significant stretches spent steering at Indy speed on the shoulder, through the grass, backward, sideways and on the wrong side of the road (especially if you're bad at it like me).
Starring: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Michael Keaton.
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language.
He does it all in the video-game adaptation as Tobey Marshall, an underground street racer who runs Marshall Motors, which will get your muscle car running at 200 mph. We first meet the crew in an "American Graffiti" throwback scene set at a drive-in movie theater bizarrely yet appropriately showing 1968's "Bullitt." They drive out to cause a ruckus on the dead streets of Mt. Kisco, N.Y., in the first of the film's many moving violations.
"Need for Speed," directed by Scott Waugh ("Act of Valor"), does have a plot, believe it or not. With Marshall Motors on the verge of foreclosure, Tobey agrees to take over a commission from returning nemesis Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) to modify a multimillion dollar Shelby Mustang with a goal of hitting 230.
An ill-advised race with Dino in Koenigsegg supercars leads to disastrous results, landing Tobey in jail for two years (and all of 30 seconds of screen time). Upon his release, he has a need for vengeance and less than 48 hours to reach San Francisco, by car, for the Super Bowl of underground racing, The De Leon, run and broadcast over the Web by a manic Michael Keaton in a show-stealing role as Monarch. (In a nice local touch, the Pittsburgh native refers to the De Leon as "my David ... my soup can.")
"Need for Speed" becomes a buddy road flick pairing Tobey, reluctantly, with the Mustang's owner, a plucky blond Brit (Imogen Poots) who knows her way around an engine and is no slouch at the wheel.
Going 65 won't cut it, and their need for speed -- not to mention Dino's bounty on them not making it -- requires backup from his crew, including varied air support from Army Reserve pilot Benny, played by Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi. In his big-screen debut, the rapper is a ball of laughing energy, displaying his comic chops and even his vocal chops, briefly singing "Fly Like an Eagle."
After his showy role on "Breaking Bad," Mr. Paul is buckled in here as the strong, silent action hero, although Jesse fans do get to enjoy flashes of that signature crazy-eyed look.
The real stars are the stunt people, who pull off ridiculous, dizzying driving feats (in your face in 3-D), including a flying "double grasshopper" that is the stupidest yet surest way to avoid rush-hour traffic in Detroit.
"Need for Speed" didn't need to be 130 minutes, but it doesn't drag too much. It's best if you keep your brain idling and look at this as something of a live video game/cartoon for gearheads, because digging into the details -- like how Benny keeps coming up with helicopters, how the cops are so incompetent, how the roads can be so conveniently vacant and how Tobey doesn't kill scores of people -- will just spoil the fun.
email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg