Dangling inside a souped-up Ford Shelby Mustang, hooked to a helicopter flying over a cliff, drag racer Tobey (Aaron Paul) keeps his passenger Julia (Imogen Poots) calm by asking her “What color are my eyes?” This results in the two amusedly arguing over whose are bluer, marking a development in their relationship (and later romance). It’s a moment which could have teetered Need for Speed into twee territory, if director Scott Waugh and screenwriters George and John Gatins hadn’t consistently built up these two–and the larger group they work in–as equals with genuine camaraderie. Operating first out of a struggling body shop, the crew are a bunch of blue-collar specialists who complement one another. They move as a unit, demonstrated early on in a rural street race: Tobey as the lead driver and figurehead, backed by an eye in the sky, a mechanic, a techie monitoring the race, and a second driver serving as both protege and ringer. Trust is implicit. When the upstart is killed by a sneering trust-fund dickhead, who pins the death on Tobey (resulting in a two-year stint), it takes hardly any effort to bring the band back together for a cross-country revenge trip doubling as attempt to enter a prestige drag race. Julia at first seems an interloper; a condition on which Tobey gets to use the Mustang he borrows from an impressed benefactor. Tobey is reluctant at first, but won over (curious, even) by her confidence, communicated in Paul’s infectious smile and David Carradine cool when conversing with her. While not attuned, initially, with the group’s jargon or the way they play loose with the laws of physics, Julia more than proves herself capable. She assists with a mobile refuel, makes keen observations about various players (challenging the masculinity of a Hummer-driving bounty hunter working for Tobey’s 1%-er rival, Poots delivers the phrase “inferiority complex” with a posh pinky wag serving as a double entendre), and readily takes the wheel when needed. Rather than undercutting, or even threatening, the others, she becomes a new, key component to the whole.
Here, Need for Speed comes dangerously close to James Cameron’s 80s oeuvre. The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss highlight inclusive collectives with natural gives-and-takes. If a member falters, the others pick up the slack. If the group’s existence is threatened, an individual sacrifices him/herself to keep the others moving. This trait runs throughout Need for Speed, but is notable in two scenes: first, a lengthy detour in Detroit from the cross-country plot, so the crew can rescue a crew member from a humdrum office job. Superfluous as the scene is–largely it becomes an excuse to show off Campus Martius and Woodward Avenue via car chase (with accurate State Trooper vehicles and uniforms, to boot)–it speaks to the unwillingness of Tobey’s crew to go on this personal crusade without one of their own. Later, when an attempted hit on Tobey leaves Julia injured, the group rallies to ensure her safety and recovery–importantly, she isn’t used as a prompt to reignite the revenge quest. All that matters is the group. This theme is so resonant, even when it ends on franchise-setup, Waugh’s film preserves its integrity.