With Need for Speed, Aaron Paul is the latest in a long line of actors attempting to make the jump from television to big screen stardom. The fact that the multiple-Emmy winner had to settle for this, a video game adaptation, as his best shot at crossing over says a lot about the movie industry's perceptions about him as leading man material.
Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, the latest in a renowned family of race car drivers. His illegal street-racing talents catch the eye of Monarch (a slumming Michael Keaton), the force behind a secret race on the coast of California that brings the best drivers from around the world to compete for a multimillion-dollar prize. Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), an old rival, feels slighted and challenges the young driver to an ill-fated race; if that weren't villainous enough, he also frames Tobey for manslaughter. Upon exiting prison, Tobey heads to the West Coast inside a Shelby Mustang with Julia (Imogen Poots), a suitably lissome business associate.
Fans of the game on which the film is based will be pleased to know that the director, Scott Waugh, understands that action is the draw. A longtime stunt coordinator who made his directorial debut in 2012 with the lackluster Act of Valor, Waugh brings an eye for thrilling set pieces. Gamers will recognize some crashes as being direct lifts from the racing series, with the majority of the film's budget apparently earmarked for vehicular damage.
Unfortunately, the Need for Speed video games don't include a narrative for first-time screenwriter George Gatins. While it is clear that Gatins has an affinity for racing films, as nods toward Bullitt, The Fast and the Furious franchise and Smokey and the Bandit fill the movie, even the most ardent fans of action films will find it difficult to continue their suspension of disbelief. Case in point: Tobey finally gets his hands on his rival Dino and confronts him about his wrongful imprisonment—a major grievance, one would think. But after a few tense seconds, Tobey mutters, "We'll settle this behind the wheel." At that moment I was hoping for a probation officer to show up and ask the ex-con what he was doing outside of New York State.
The charisma Paul displayed in Breaking Bad is still there, and a strong case can be made that he may be ready to carry his own Hollywood franchise. Here, however, he was saddled with a lemon, and Need for Speed stalls out at the starting line.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Breaking down."