To say that “Need for Speed” is one of the better movies derived from a videogame source may not sound like much of an endorsement given the competition (“Street Fighter,” “Tekken,” “Super Mario Bros.”), but it’s an apt description of this mash note to the American muscle car in which high-flying stuntwork routinely trumps plot, plausibility or particularly memorable characters. The “Fast and Furious” franchise has nothing much to worry about, but as long as the engines are humming and the gears are grinding — which is most of the time — “Need” is modest, diverting fun that should have at least a couple of good box office laps in it before “Divergent” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” muscle it off the track.
Because the “Need for Speed” games, of which there have been 20 different installments since 1994, don’t really offer much in the way of narrative, director Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”) and sibling screenwriters George and John Gatins are pretty much starting from scratch here. They have, in turn, created even more of a self-conscious, 1950s hot-rod/greaser throwback than the “Fast” movies themselves, plunking us down in the kind of pastoral small-town America (Georgia doubling for Mt. Kisco, N.Y.) where people talk of “the big city” as if it can only be reached by arduous overland journey, and where ruddy-cheeked youths gather on summer nights at the local drive-in theater (where “Bullitt” is either enjoying a reissue, or has simply been playing continuously for the past 45 years).
One half expects James Dean and Sal Mineo to enter at any moment, but instead we get Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), a youth stock-car prodigy who now runs a local custom auto shop, and his best bud, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), who’s also called “Little Pete,” and whose sensitive, childlike demeanor tells us from the start that he’s doomed to meet an untimely end. Tobey, by contrast, is built Ford-tough, and Paul plays the part with the flinty, tightly wound charisma of a small man who makes up in moxie what he lacks in stature. There’s something of the young James Cagney in him, and he’s by far the best thing “Need for Speed” has going for it.
In a mildly refreshing change-up from the American action-movie norm, Paul is surrounded by an ensemble of similarly small-to-medium-sized gearheads who, collectively, might equal one Vin Diesel or the Rock. They include the wiry, bug-eyed Rami Malek (as a mechanic who gives his cubicle-dwelling day job an exuberant kiss-off), and hip-hop star Scott Mescudi as a wise-cracking Army Reserve pilot who improbably pops up in a variety of civilian and military aircraft throughout the movie, lending the racers eagle-eyed air support whenever they seem to require it. (File his performance under “a little goes a long way.”)
With his slick pompadour and cocksure strut, Dominic Cooper is nearly a caricature of wanton privilege as Dino Brewster, the hometown boy turned NASCAR pro, newly back in town with Pete’s sister Anita (Dakota Johnson), who happens to be Tobey’s former high-school flame, on his arm. Dino has come into possession of the prototype 50th-anniversary Ford Mustang that legendary designer Carroll Shelby was working on at the time of his death in 2012. He has a British buyer on the line for a cool $3 million, and he proposes to hire Tobey and company to finish building the car in exchange for a cut of the sale. But Dino has a few dirtier tricks up his sleeve, too. After the Mustang is built and the sale is done, he challenges Tobey and Pete to a winner-takes-all road race in three identical, street-illegal Swedish Koenigsegg supercars.
Resembling sleeker, more aerodynamic Batmobiles, the Koenigseggs look like trouble, and prove to be just that for Pete, in what is certainly one of the most spectacular aerial car flips ever captured on film. The vicarious thrill-making of that scene and others that show drivers racing in excess of 100 miles per hour through crowded city streets can’t help but hit a slightly queasy note arriving barely three months after the death of Paul Walker. Then again, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Need for Speed” is a movie Walker himself would have very much enjoyed.
Framed by Dino for Pete’s death, Tobey does his time and emerges two years later with revenge on his mind. At which point “Need for Speed” evolves into a kind of latter-day “Cannonball Run” or “Gumball Rally,” with Tobey hightailing it from New York to San Francisco to compete against Dino in the Super Bowl of illegal street racing, the De Leon. His car of choice: the custom Mustang, whose owner agrees to lend it on the condition that his associate Julia (Imogen Poots) travels with it. The tart, spunky Poots has some fun playing a woman for whom the sound of grinding gears is close to a mating call, but make no mistake: The true romance here is that of man and machine, as Tobey races against the clock, the cops and (in one of the movie’s dumber plot twists) some high-octane bounty hunters dispatched by Dino.
A veteran stunt performer and coordinator, Waugh isn’t as distinctive an image maker as longtime “Fast and Furious” helmer Justin Lin (or Ron Howard in “Rush”), but he certainly knows his way around a stunt sequence and, as in “Act of Valor,” draws heavily on practical special effects with a minimum of CGI. That includes the Mustang’s gravity-defying, 160-foot leap across multiple lanes of downtown Detroit traffic — a stunt so dazzling it help to compensate for some of the movie’s even more death-defying leaps in logic, such as why one would detour through Detroit en route from New York to California in the first place. The rest of the time, Waugh and stunt coordinator Lance Gilbert and d.p. Shane Hurlbut keep the screen busy with lots of fancy driving shot from a battery of dizzying but never disorienting angles (two additional d.p.s, David B. Nowell and Michael Kelem, are credited with the frequent aerial images).
When we finally get to San Francisco, the De Leon almost feels like an anticlimax — unsurprising, given that we’re already well past the 90-minute running time Roger Corman deemed ideal for such fare. But there is an oasis of private amusement waiting in the form of Michael Keaton as the Monarch, mythic impresario of the De Leon, who beams his rhythmic color commentary over the Internet from an undisclosed locale, working himself into flurries of manic intensity as he goes. It’s a tailor-made role for the sly, inventive and chronically underrated Keaton, and he does much to guide “Need for Speed” ably across the finish line.