Grab the wheel

"Need for Speed" is loosely based on several hugely popular car racing video games. And it does deliver on its B-movie promise to provide for fans what must be a familiar entertainment experience: ensconced in front of a screen at home, hands on the controls of an Xbox 360, a game in high-def in which the player controls a screaming race car, sending it careening along back roads and around tight corners in pursuit of the finish line.

The satisfaction derived from these games is purely visceral. The expectation is to take a flat-out ride that requires concentration and nerve, all from the safety of a sofa.

"Need for Speed" is exactly that kind of film. It's essentially experiential; the plot is all but nonexistent. CGI filmmaking has reached that level where the camera can in effect be the driver and, with multiple smash cuts, show the car — in this case, the car is a silver hottie, a Carroll Shelby modified Mustang that has a look and sound that are beyond compelling — skidding sideways as it takes a tight turn. Mix such wide shots with the sounds of a throaty, maxed-out engine, smoke billowing from the tires as they search for traction, the audience feeling the kinetic force.

The target audience for "Need for Speed," in the main, is composed of that young demographic that takes for granted society's ubiquitous car culture (made manifest in film by the successful franchise, "Fast and Furious"), but also have had available to them a myriad of sophisticated electronic games played since early youth. Many are serious gamers.

The avatar in "Need for Speed" is a young guy, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad"), who runs his recently deceased father's gas station/car repair shop in Mt. Kisko, N.Y. His life is all about building cars and driving very, very fast in pick-up races for cash. In other words, he feels the need for speed (a phrase that's reminiscent of that iconic film, "Top Gun").

Marshall is challenged to get a Shelby Mustang to California, where he will compete in a below-the-radar, coastal road race called the De Leon, to be run on the rural back roads of Mendocino County. His sidekick, sitting in the right seat, is Julia Bonet (Imogen Poots), a gutsy gal who represents the owner of the tricked-out car (valued at some $3 million).

Of course, as one character says, "This is about much more than racing." And it is. Part of the plot, such as it is, involves payback by Marshall for the loss of a close friend; two subsequent years spent in prison, framed for manslaughter; and the need to bring down the Machiavellian Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a Mt. Kisko expat who will stop at nothing to prevent Marshall and Bonet from arriving in California in time for the race. He wants the win and the prize.

And so the structure of the film amounts to three races. The first is between Marshall, Brewster and a kid named Pete. The second race, this time against the clock, is from New York to San Francisco. And the last race is up the Mendocino coast, every mile illegal, dangerous and a display of recklessness and torque. Winner takes all.

The entire film is loud and energetic and technically well done. It is, however, not about story or acting. But no one in the audience cares. This is all about high velocity. It's a game disguised as a movie. The only thing that would be better for the audience, which will relish the rush and the ersatz danger, would be to have the actual steering wheel in hand and controlling the car. But then, that's what Marshall is all about. Hence he spends two hours putting the pedal to the metal while the audience holds its collective breath.

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