RATING |

Not sure there's a burning need for Need for Speed - a cross-country, road-racing, revenge-taking, stunt-driving cannonball of a movie - but now that it's here, braking into spins and spinning in slo-mo and fast-mo from Mount Kisco, N.Y., to the Mendocino Highway, you'd have to be a true carmudgeon (sorry) to want it to stop.

Aaron Paul, moving from the teen tweaker-turned-tragic-meth-lab-protege of Breaking Bad to his own starring vehicle, climbs into several - a Shelby Mustang and a Koenigsegg Agera (among others) - for a pedal-to-the-metal tale of "love, vengeance, and motor oil, all swirling together."

That's Michael Keaton talking, soul-patched, sunglassed, and functioning a lot like the Cleavon Little character in the 1971 road- pic cult classic Vanishing Point. Or rather, it's Keaton's character Monarch. A kabillionaire who sponsors an annual underground race called the De Leon, Monarch is a kind of omnipotent spirit guide, urging Paul's grease monkey Tobey Marshall on.

Tobey has an ax to grind: During a wild street race through his hometown, a smug rich guy, Dino (Dominic Cooper), is responsible for a fiery fatal crash. But it's Tobey who's wrongly charged with manslaughter and sent to the pen. Two years later, he gets out, and gets the chance to right the wrong (it's his best friend who was killed), which involves driving from Mount Kisco to Detroit to San Francisco, with wild chases along the way. Riding shotgun - though she gets to take the wheel, too - is Imogen Poots' Julia, a cheeky Brit who says stuff like "never judge a girl by her Gucci boots."

Adapted by stuntman-turned-auteur Scott Waugh (the Navy SEALs actioner Act of Valor was his feature debut) from the street-racing video game, Need for Speed revs its engines appreciatively at some cinema car chases: Steve McQueen's Nob Hill careen in Bullitt is seen early on at a drive-in (foreshadowing Paul's own San Fran run), various cop-car crash-ups echo Smokey and the Bandit, and at one point, Paul and Poots are gunning straight toward the oblivion of Dead Horse Point in Moab, Utah - the same precipice Thelma and Louise hurtled over. The geeky camaraderie that starts Need for Speed - with Tobey and his garage mates (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) working on muscle cars, angsting about girls, hanging out - feels like a Disneyfied version of Rebel Without a Cause, and the deadly game of 150 m.p.h. chicken that happens later on does, too.

Paul pulls a few Jesse Pinkman facial tics and eyebrow arches out of his bag, but he's all conviction behind the wheel, and the rapport between the actor and Poots goes a long way - even when the dialogue doesn't. Cooper oozes haughty villainy, begging for comeuppance.

But it's the cars, and the mega-horsepowered action, that matter most. With its driver-POV spinouts, wrong-way chases, and multilane median jumps, the movie is a roaring revel of an automotive fantasy. As those disclaimers in the car ads say: Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt.

Just buy a ticket instead.

Need for Speed *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Scott Waugh. With Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, and Michael Keaton. Distributed by DreamWorks/Disney.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (intense action, violence, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theatersEndText

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@Steven_Rea