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'Need for Speed' review: Back it up, Aaron Paul

** (out of four)

Leading roles don’t grow on trees. If they did, Aaron Paul’s first big-screen starring performance would inspire someone to chop down that tree, throw it in the ocean and set the ocean on fire.

From the little I’ve seen of “Breaking Bad”—I know, I know—Paul isn’t just intense in his Emmy-winning role as Jesse Pinkman. He has an unpredictable edge. In “Need for Speed,” the actor’s constipated intensity lives on the surface, charisma-free; it’s uncomfortable to watch. When he’s supposed to be angry/sad, I almost laughed. When he’s supposed to be charming, it looked like his character was about to kill someone.

Good thing you don’t see movies about cars driving fast for the acting, right? Yes, the overlong “Need for Speed” has some pretty bitchin’ chases and shots of expensive vehicles flipping over. And more expensive vehicles flipping over. And then more of that. The wildly illogical premise finds Tobey (Paul) getting out of prison and driving across the country with English car expert Julia (Imogen Poots of “That Awkward Moment”) to enter an ultra-exclusive, ultra-illegal street race. Tobey wants revenge on a rival (Dominic Cooper) who oddly spends a lot of time away from his professional racing career and who led to Tobey’s incarceration. The duo’s previous incident suggests police haven’t heard of forensic evidence and randomly believe one person over another in cases of hearsay, but whatever. This time it’s personal! Seriously, in the climactic race, the organizer (Michael Keaton), who is said to be mysterious but is easily reachable via Skype, actually says, “This ain’t just about racing.”

Based on a video game and directed by Scott Waugh (the offensively artificial “Act of Valor”), “Need for Speed” probably will scratch the itch of “Fast and Furious” junkies who just want to see impressive cars zooming down streets and dangling over cliffs. Scott Mescudi (better known as Kid Cudi) delivers effective comic relief, and the movie would be stupid even with another star in place of Paul.

However, for those whose post-movie conversations involve more than just, “Did you see the engine/torque/etc. on that baby?” “Need for Speed” is an often-cartoonish goof whose emotional finale hinges on a twist that isn’t even part of the hero’s original plan. Here’s hoping the film’s title doesn’t prohibit a feature-length version of the Jessie Spano-addicted-to-caffeine-pills episode of “Saved by the Bell.”

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