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Not Much “Need For Speed”

Since it’s based on the long-running series of video games, the makers of “Need for Speed” were stuck with the title. Yet speed is the one thing the movie doesn’t lack.

There’s a definite need for compelling characters. There’s most certainly a need for a coherent story. But speed? This thing has speed out the wazoo.

The characters race around their small hometown in muscle cars. They race around the outskirts in supercars that aren’t even street legal. Heck, they race across the country just to get to another race.

After a while, there’s so much needless revving of engines and squealing of tires, so much senseless driving straight at oncoming traffic and forcing other vehicles off the road, that the overall impression goes from “Man, this is cool” to “Man, those poor other drivers, I wonder what all this nonsense is going to do to their insurance premiums?”

Mechanic Tobey Marshall (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul) is the best wheelman Mount Kisco, N.Y., has ever seen. And that includes his well-heeled rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who starred on the pro circuit and is dating Tobey’s ex (Dakota Johnson).

So when Dino shows up at Tobey’s garage with a proposition — finish building the Mustang legendary designer Carroll Shelby was working on when he died in exchange for a quarter of the proceeds — his buddies warn him against it, right up until they learn Tobey’s barely keeping the bank from seizing the shop.

In no time, egos are bruised, tempers flare, and the two are racing rare Koenigsegg Ageras for 100 percent of the Mustang’s $2.7 million selling price. But when their recklessness ends in tragedy, Dino flees the scene, leaving Tobey to shoulder the blame and spend two years in prison for manslaughter.

As soon as he gets home, though, Tobey persuades the Mustang’s buyer to let him drive the prized car in The De Leon, the world’s foremost illegal road race, on one condition: His car expert, Julia (Imogen Poots), must accompany Tobey. Because, you know, ex-con, straight out of prison, breaking parole so he can break a vast array of other laws in your multimillion-dollar car, you’re going to take precautions.

There’s just one other problem: Tobey and Julia only have 48 hours to get from Mount Kisco to San Francisco for the race.

Because of the timing, they take insane chances, such as the scene in which Tobey’s pals Joe (Ramon Rodriguez) and Finn (Rami Malek) risk life and limb to refuel the Mustang while it’s barreling down the highway through traffic. Sure, it looks cool, but pulling over would have taken, what, three minutes?

Google Maps says that trip should take 43 hours, and that’s in cars that don’t top out at 230 mph. Of course, Google Maps doesn’t factor in bounty hunters trying to collect the reward Dino offers for keeping the Mustang from making it to The De Leon. But “Need for Speed” barely does, either, since Tobey and the gang only encounter one group.

This just feels like one more wasted opportunity in a movie full of them, starting with not giving the tremendously capable Paul enough to do.

Cooper, who’s usually bubbling over with charisma, is particularly one-note.

And poor Michael Keaton is stuck playing the mysterious billionaire known as The Monarch who stages The De Leon and provides the play-by-play of the big race with stinkers like, “This ain’t just about racing.” While we’re on the subject, it’s more than a little weird that the coverage of this huge race, which has attracted a worldwide following of gearheads, is limited to little dots representing the six entrants moving along a map. The Monarch’s a billionaire. He couldn’t spring for a half-dozen webcams?

Then again, very little about The De Leon makes sense. Tobey’s big plan to prove he was framed for taking one life is to endanger dozens of others?

Sigh.

Moviegoers who are just in it for the car porn should be more than satisfied. In addition to the Mustang and Ageras, “Need for Speed” showcases a ’66 GTO, a ’68 Camaro and a ’69 Gran Torino, as well as a Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, a Bugatti Veyron, a GTA Spano, a McLaren P1 and a Saleen S7. Clearly more time was spent on wrangling those cars than in punching up the script by first-timer George Gatins.

“Need for Speed’s” one strength is in stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh and his decision to use actual stunt drivers rather than relying on computer effects. During those moments when your eyes glaze over, and they will glaze over, imagine what Waugh could do with a reboot of “The Cannonball Run.” (Seriously, this should happen.)

You’re probably thinking, “It’s based on a video game. What do you expect?” Well, “Pirates of the Caribbean” was based on a theme park ride, and “The Lego Movie” was based on a bunch of blocks, and they’re wildly more inventive.

And say what you will about the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, but those movies built a far more convincing world than “Need for Speed” can muster.

This one’s closer to “The Fast and the Spurious.”

Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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