Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.
“Speed Racer” Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon. 135 minutes. Rated PG.
I hate animated films about as much as I hate films that synthesize animation with live action. And unless it’s “Batman” I am sick to death of comic book- and cartoon-inspired movies.
But instead of throwing up my lunch I simply threw up my hands and went with the hackneyed, cliched and utterly simple-minded “Speed Racer,” a movie in want of an audience dumb enough to enjoy it.
Despite its lurid color palette and fairy-tale plot, “Speed Racer” isn’t something kids will digest with their Happy Meals. Rather, it’s suffused with pell-mell destruction and adult themes of corruption, blackmail and death, most of which will go over the kiddies’ heads. But Mommy and Daddy can expect a grinding case of road rage over the money wasted on this interstate highway pileup of a flick.
The story goes like this: Young Speed (Emil Hirsch) grows up idolizing his older brother, Rex (Scott Porter), who is killed in a horrific wreck and accused of racing dirty, thereby sullying the family name. When Speed follows in Rex’s footsteps he is wooed by a large racing conglomerate headed by Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), who threatens destruction upon the Racer family when Speed turns down his offer. Meanwhile the Togokahn racing organization, facing a hostile takeover by Royalton Industries, vows to win a final race, The Crucible, a cross-country destructo-derby where dirty tricks are the norm. They enlist Speed as a driver. If Togokahn wins the price of their stock will rise, bankrupting Royalton and exposing their race-fixing, and salvage the Racer family name.
Sounds like any number of little-guy-vs.-big guy potboilers, but what puts “Speed Racer” behind the pack is its lack of focus, thuddingly dense dialogue, dismissal of simple physics and jarring cinematography.
Where to begin? The brain swoons at the prospect. Is this a children’s movie or what? Should adults take it seriously? Are the overblown CGI effects a kind of commentary on the illusory nature of reality or merely the product of overzealous computer geeks?
Ultimately “Speed Racer” comes across as a rendering of “The Matrix” on Ecstasy, which is no coincidence: It was created by the Wachowski brothers, who guided the perpetually dazed and confused Keanu Reeves through his role as Neo in the otherworldly “Matrix” trilogy.
But unlike the original “Matrix” and the immensely satisfying “V for Vendetta,” the Wachowskis’ efforts are less successful here.
“Speed Racer” does not earn the checkered flag.
Ignore the bona fide movie critics, and Del, who pan the latest Wachowski brother’s effort. Rent “Speed Racer.” Make sure your subwoofer is working.
The plot is difficult to discern and the storytelling as blurry as the race scenes but what’s the big deal? No film is perfect.
Flashing unearthly psychedelic colors make the pseudo-animated movie a vivid delight. “Speed Racer” juxtaposes the dark plot with the cheerfulness of bright colors to say that shiny surfaces often disguise the evil beneath.
Pleasing-to-the-eye Christina Ricci, as Trixie, plays the role of an indomitable but discreet instigator with effective lightheartedness.
The actors portraying Spridle and ChimChim – or however the hell their names are spelled – add humor to the movie.
And, no kidding, John Goodman as Pops looks exactly like Pops in the “Speed Racer” cartoons.
Racers employ all sorts of dirty tricks against each other to keep, or get, lucrative corporate sponsorships. Races are fixed by bookies, an idea that the film’s makers could have ripped off from watching BCS college football computer models at work.
The vehicles depicted in the movie are beautiful. Powered by interlocking dihedral fusion c60 bucky balls or some such thing, the machines handle turns, loops, dips, jumps, sand, ice, rain, hot, cold, sideswipes, rearenders, frontenders, rocket-propelled grenades, hypoxia and the common cold with ease. It’s a wonder the driver’s weren’t fitted with G suits. Yes, the powerful Mach 5 and, later, Mach 6, have the gadgets featured in the cartoons and even some of the sound effects. Remember the “sproing” of the doohickeys that make the Mach 5 jump?
I would have preferred that “Speed Racer” the movie use as a plot something other than big business corruption and one boy’s push to keep the spirit of racing alive. What nonsense. All sports at all levels are about making money.
In fact, a pure action movie with no moral would have been ideal.
So, here’s the story for “Speed Racer” the sequel. A CG race against the Mammoth Car with the Car Acrobatic Team as its escort will blow off peoples’ socks. A subplot involving Racer X and the evil scientist who created the armored and tracker Car With A Brain must be worked in somehow. Finally, it would be helpful if in the sequel Speed reacts to Trixie’s sexiness with a thrill rather than dour sentimentality.
“Speed Racer” is worth watching. I’m thinking of adding it to my meager DVD collection, though not until the price drops to $5, or less.
Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.