Director : The Wachowski Brothers
Screenplay : The Wachowski Brothers
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer), Christina Ricci (Trixie), John Goodman (Pops Racer), Susan Sarandon (Mom Racer), Paulie Litt (Spritle), Roger Allam (Royalton), Rain (Taejo Togokhan) and Matthew Fox (Racer X), Kick Gurry (Sparky)
The first half hour of Speed Racer, the Wachowski Brothers’ hyperkinetic, candy-colored update of the cultish ’60s Japanese anime series, rushes forward with the kind of intensity and pop artistry that many will be expecting--nay, demanding--from the minds behind The Matrix. Smoothly segueing between past and present using one image to wipe into the next, it introduces all the major characters and also establishes the film’s true signature: its slick, sharp-edged, yet purposefully cartoonish visual design that is the very epitome of the postmodern melding of ... well ... everything. Trying to describe exactly what Speed Racer’s visual palette invokes, I find myself reaching to all four corners of the mind, relating it to everything from a moving painting, to being trapped inside a neon sign that someone has dropped into a centrifuge. It is at once hyper-detailed and abstract, simultaneously drawing you in and pushing you out, with the ultimate effect of wearing you out (and, bear in mind, I’m still talking about the first half hour).
Speed Racer is the closest thing we have at this point to a studio-produced, megabudget experimental film, and while many will bemoan it as the Wachowskis’ next step into permanently separating the cinema from any sense of reality, it is easy to imagine the filmmakers quietly laughing to themselves about how they got Warner Bros. to pony up millions to fund what is essentially a test of just how far mainstream summer blockbuster material can be pushed until it pops. And pop it does, though not always in good ways.
We’ve seen everything Speed Racer has to offer before but not in this bombastic of an arrangement. The basic narrative and characters are familiar from many a day at the multiplex, but the visual logic is a twisted amalgamation of video games and the increasingly immersive theme-park rides that are the next logical extension of movie technology. While they had to settle for the IMAX experience as their top-shelf exhibition strategy, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Wachowskis had at least pitched the idea of putting a few theaters on gimbals.
What is new here is that the Wachowskis have gone square. After their dark, violent escapades in The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) and the terrorist-themed comic book adaptation V for Vendetta (2005), their aim has now shifted into family terrain, replacing grim philosophical musings and weapon fetishes with willfully goofy comedy aimed at the pre-junior-high set and enough rock-solid family values to almost erase all those nasty, knee-jerk connections made between Neo and the Trenchcoat Mafia. Surprisingly, the Wachowskis seem quite at home in this territory, which is to say that their attempts to balance humanity with all the revved up technology on display is just as awkward here as it was in their previous films. This could be forgiven in The Matrix trilogy because those films were bursting at the seams with ideas, but Speed Racer lacks anything resembling genuine depth, even on the level of pseudo-profundity. Sure, there is a crackling critique of corporate corruption and a celebration of the purity of willpower, but let’s face it: having a sneering CEO as the primary villain is about as challenging as vilifying the Nazis.
There is a story to be told, and given that Speed Racer clocks in at more than two hours, you might imagine that it has some intrigue and complexity. However, the film’s relentless emphasis on form over content essentially drains it of anything resembling old-fashioned narrative suture; everything is another excuse for eye candy. The earnest hero is Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), who comes from a race-car family comprised of his mechanic father Pops (John Goodman), his old-fashioned PB&J-making mom (Susan Sarandon), and his feisty younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), who inexplicably keeps a pet chimp (well, it’s not inexplicable in the sense that there was a pet chimp in the original TV show, but anyone who hasn’t seen it will likely wonder, “What’s with the chimp?”). There are also a couple of surrogate family members, including Pops’ righthand man Sparky (Kick Gurry) and Racer’s sort-of girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci). Part of the story hinges on the mysterious death of Speed’s older brother Rex (Scott Porter), who was a gifted race-car driver before he was apparently disgraced. Speed wants to clear the family name, thus he upholds his integrity by refusing an offer from a corrupt corporate billionaire named Royalton (Roger Allam) who has his meaty fingers deep in the racing industry. Thus, we go from race to race, with mild family drama and mild Spritle-induced mayhem to fill in the gaps.
The mesmerizing nature of the film’s CGI-heavy visual display can’t be denied, although its longevity can be. For roughly half an hour, Speed Racer is a genuine rush, pushing the envelop with its Crayola marker hues and willingness to bend our conventional ideas about what a movie should look like. Part live action, part cartoon, it’s a mishmash hybrid that delights in its own lack of grounding. Unfortunately, the excitement of this lasts only so long, and after a while you begin to realize that everything the film has to offer has been frontloaded, leaving only increasingly diminishing results. Each race has its own special character, but it begins to feel too much like moving through different levels of a video game (ah, here we are at the loop-de-loop level ... now we’re in the desert chase level ... oh, no, the ice cave level!). The exhilaration of the action setpieces also has a diminishing quality in that their physics-defying absurdity begins to overwhelm any sense of actual emotional involvement. Thus, Speed Racer makes good on its promise to deliver something that hasn’t been seen before, but fails to make use want to see anything like it again.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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