Inspired by the video game series of the same name that provides a catchphrase far more readily than it can the makings of a potential franchise, "Need For Speed" gets straight A's in physics, auto shop and synergy. (And if that last one isn't a subject in school, give it 10 years.) What's less exciting is how it flunks itself — and us — by not capitalizing on the clear and real chemistry between stars Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots. "Need For Speed" is based on the POV driving game of the same name, which has raked in $4 billion in global sales since it was introduced in 1994. The resulting film is a snoozy-but-diverting, lightly constipated B-movie directed and edited by Scott Waugh ("Act of Valor") with a surprising amount of missed chances and plot holes provided by screenwriting duo John Gatins ("Flight") and co-writer brother George. At many points in the film, the pluck and valor of Paul and Poots gets them out of a burnt-out, mangled wreck roughly unscathed. It's just too bad that the two of them can never quite pull off that nimble trick with the movie itself.
Paul is our driver-tagonist Tobey, dealt a royal flush of screenwriting clichés from the bottom of the deck — and slowly, at that. He's got a failing family car customization business where he can't pay his jackanapes employees and the bills are due. Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) is our bad king of the road, a pro driver who needed Tobey's crew's help to build the ultimate Mustang, but who also kills Tobey's bestie Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) in a muy macho three-way race Tobey takes the rap for. Dino, meanwhile, gets Tobey's ex as Tobey gets years in the joint. Enter queen of the right-hand-side Julia (Imogen Poots), along for the ride as her employer now lends the out-of-jail Tobey the restored, roaring Mustang so Tobey might gain a seat in the mythical, illegal De Leon road race. The De Leon is a winner-take-all-the-cars underground-ish kind of deal, hosted and hyped by The Monarch (Michael Keaton). At the race, Tobey will have the chance to both clear his name and take vengeance — which is, after all, just the unleaded form of justice — against Dino in a high-octane Hamlet riff.
And there are more racing scenes — far more — than you'd find in some of the more recent "Fast & Furious" films, yes, with a variety of expensive cars and no small amount of real-world driving and a fastidiously light sprinkle of CGI post-production work. But if you can't tell a Bugatti from a Maserati — or worse, think both are the current specials at Olive Garden — the automotive mayhem becomes something more like automated ho-hum. The stunt work, lead by Lance Gilbert, is all top-notch, but it's also top-volume, drowning out the occasional moments of harmony between Poots and Paul. The duo has no small amount of charm here; the problem is the film's so busy with crashes and smashes and low-res GoPro footage that puts you inside the demolition derby that the connections of its characters and stars swiftly takes the (figurative, not literal) back seat to the collisions of their vehicles.
The film's smash-'em-up action actually only results in one mentioned death even as dozens of cars flip, fly and fireball after mishaps — putting the reality level of the film's world rather far from our own and more towards that of, say, the old "G.I. Joe" cartoon. One burned-up victim, I guess, is sufficient to kick-start the revenge plot; apparently any more would be unseemly, which is apparently preferable to being even remotely realistic about Newton's laws of motion and bodies (literally and figuratively) in motion. With the exception of some hijinks featuring Paul's crew Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek and Ramon Rodriguez and the aforementioned external spark from Poots and Paul between the internal combustion, "Need for Speed" is a dour, sour affair, like some needless grim-and-gritty reboot of "The Cannonball Run" or "The Gumball Rally" that's far more square than it needs to be.
The great cosmic joke comes in how a movie that features such curving, swerving, nimble driving action can be so immensely head-for-the-ditch inept in every other aspect of its script. The plot isn't just insipid, it's conveniently so: Mescudi, for one, can pull any vehicle he needs apparently out of his back left pocket; Cooper's villainous actions make utterly no sense; the many other errors and expediencies are as are glaring as they are numerous. Paul's also forced to rely on natural charm — the script makes Tobey into a one-dimensional cipher, and Poots is playing a character who can spot an aluminum-block V-8 with a glance and yet needs explanation of even the most basic driving terms. I guess you can know cars but not car racing, but to me it felt like a riff on the old deodorant commercial: "Strong" enough to know the same things as a man, but made for exposition.
And yet, as Poots and Paul (which really sounds like a Dickensian law firm) simply can't break out of the steel-cage structure of the script that traps them: Talk, drive; talk, drive; talk, drive. You'd need the very jaws of life to wedge a sign of life into "Need for Speed" that doesn't take place either where the rubber meets the road or between Poots and Paul. But when our leads are on-screen between some not-half-bad stunt sequences, they're compulsively watchable ... even behind the wheel of a script that isn't even street legal, never mind firing on all eight cylinders.