"I can smell love, vengeance and motor oil swirling together!"
It's an inspired line from "Need for Speed," delivered by Michael Keaton as The Monarch, a mysterious, Godlike figure who communicates with the auto world only by Internet. His one-line plot summary, slightly tinged with mockery, may be the funniest moment in this otherwise leaden car flick. In a movie where the action, characters and dialogue are thoroughly low-octane, Keaton is the only one firing on all cylinders.
That's too bad, because he's rarely on screen. The hero we're stuck with is Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul, minus the intensity he brought to AMC's "Breaking Bad"), an auto mechanic from Mount Kisco. His complicated backstory -- a wrongful conviction and a blood feud with rich-kid racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) -- causes the movie to idle for nearly 30 minutes until shifting into gear with the introduction of sassy British car maven Julia (Imogen Poots). She and Tobey must drive a priceless Mustang to California, where Tobey hopes to clear his name at The Monarch's invite-only race, The De Leon.
Even for a low-aiming youth movie adapted from a storyless video game (John and George Gatins are the writers), this is a remarkably dopey plot. Director Scott Waugh ("Act of Valor") doesn't even bother hiding it. The physics-ignorant stunts, many involving aircraft, are too improbable to work as fantasies or even as gags, and Tobey and his crew (played by Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez and actor-musician Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi) frequently cross the line from daring to dunderheaded. You might forgive them clipping the occasional bicyclist and plowing into oncoming traffic, but playing dodge-'em with a bus full of schoolchildren is another matter.
"Need for Speed" is filled with tributes to -- and ripoffs of -- vintage car flicks: A drive-in theater plays "Bullitt," a cop car loses its back axle a la "American Grafitti," and Keaton's character is an update of Cleavon Little's jive-talking radio DJ from the 1971 cult classic "Vanishing Point." Keaton, riffing faster than a souped-up Agera ("Christmas came early, wing nuts!"), is clearly having a great time. That makes one of us.
PLOT An auto mechanic wrongly convicted of murder must clear his name by entering a race. Adapted from the Electronic Arts video game.
RATED R (action, violence)
CAST Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper
BOTTOM LINE Plenty of Mustangs on display, but the Hyundai characters and Prius pacing make this movie a low-octane drag. Even car nuts may get bored.