Despite all that, it does show signs of actual life — in the stunts, in the performances, in the headlong rush to get to the next crazy event.
The movie takes its title from a video game (and of course from a "Top Gun" catchphrase). The cluttered plot has hotshot driver-mechanic Tobey (Aaron Paul) avenging a serious crime, for which he served two years in the pen, by challenging his nemesis (Dominic Cooper) in a legendary illegal road race. He picks up a car-savvy Englishwoman (Imogen Poots) for reasons that are too hard to explain, and they must get from New York to the race's San Francisco kick-off in 45 hours.
This takes 130 minutes to play out, but we're never far from a road race, a flipping car, or the sound of squealing rubber. Director Scott Waugh is a veteran of stuntwork, and he knows how to arrange cars in dangerous ways.
This is the most irresponsible thing about the movie. All this hugely dangerous racing is presented as a hilarious good time, and the innocent bystanders and police cars upended along the way are just so much collateral damage in the fun.
Maybe that works in a video game, but a movie has to create some semblance of a real world. So unless you're a sociopath, watching this mayhem is occasionally icky. (Still-fresh memories of "Fast and the Furious" star Paul Walker's death in a high-speed crash might also give pause while watching this rival to that franchise.)
And yet the zoom-zoom is often exciting, and Tobey's posse of mechanics is wacky and loose. Rami Malek plays a grease monkey who has a memorable final day at a real job, and hip-hop guy Scott Mescudi adds some generic but lively chatter.
The most pleasant surprise is up-and-comer Imogen Poots, who is completely charming in a potentially nothing role. She easily outshines future "50 Shades of Grey" star Dakota Johnson, who actually does have a nothing role.
There's also Michael Keaton, the organizer of the big race, who never leaves his radio studio/Internet chamber. Keaton yammers in "Beetlejuice" mode, apparently having already made the millions of dollars he'd need to carry on his car racing sponsorship.
"Breaking Bad" co-star Aaron Paul looks like a bowl of vanilla pudding that's been left at room temperature, but all he really needs is a sub-Batman growl and a little attitude. This, he nails. "Need for Speed" is about as good as a really dumb movie can get.
"Need for Speed" (two and a half stars)
Despite the premise and the irresponsible action (the car racing causes lots of collateral damage, but nobody cares), this is about a fun as a really dumb movie can get. Aaron Paul leads a lively cast through a tale of high-speed racers doing illegal things; Imogen Poots is his charming co-star.
Rating: PG-13, for violence, nudity
Opening: Friday at Alderwood, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Woodinville, Blue Fox Drive-In and Cascade Mall.
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