Speed Racer (Warner Bros., PG)

speed_racer_header.jpgThe film accomplishes exactly what The Matrix did in 1999 in that it looks like absolutely no other movie that preceded it.

 

 

 

When it comes to summer blockbusters, most moviegoers have their minds set as to whether a movie will be any good or not months before they ever even have a chance to watch it. Speed Racer is mostly being greeted with an entirely different attitude: cautious optimism. No one seems ready to commit to saying it’s going to suck, or that it’s going to be the best movie of the summer, but everyone seems, at the very least, excited by the prospect of a Speed Racer movie. It’s easy to understand given the Wachowski Brothers track record: The Matrix blew minds but its sequels landed like duds, and their adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel V For Vendetta rankled comic nerds but thrilled pretty much everyone else. Speed Racer, however, is an entirely different animal, a kid friendly throwback to the classic campy 1967 TV series of the same name. Given the adult nature of the Wachowskis’ traditional output, could they handle the challenge?

The answer is: well, sort of.

First the plot: Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the hottest new driver in the World Racing League, but he lives in the shadow of his brother Rex (Scott Porter), who showed similar promise before dying in a fiery crash on the infamous cross country course known as the Crucible. Speed has always raced for his old man Pops Racer (John Goodman), but his skill on the racetrack attracts the attention of the slimy CEO of megaconglomerate Royalton Industries (Roger Allam). Royalton makes Speed an offer he can’t refuse, yet when he does just that, Royalton tries to ruin the lives of the entire Racer family. To beat the malevolent businessman, Speed must enter the race that killed Rex and defeat the heavily financed Royalton team with only two other drivers by his side: Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop singer Rain), whose family is being extorted by Royalton, and the enigmatic masked racer Racer X (Matthew Fox of TV’s Lost).

The best thing Speed Racer has going for it is its visual style. The film accomplishes exactly what The Matrix did in 1999 in that it looks like absolutely no other movie that preceded it. The races are a sight to behold, a futuristic dreamscape of preposterously fantastic tracks where unreal contraptions that call themselves cars defy the laws of physics as they careen across the neon-lit landscape. The camera is along for the ride, sliding along the track or zooming in for tight close-ups of the drivers, yet frequent cuts to the crowd and a bevy of announcers thankfully keep you from losing your lunch. Despite resembling nothing in the real world, the races stay believable because the world of Speed Racer outside of the race is just as surreal as the one inside it, with every article of clothing and even every tree in the landscape painted in super-saturated candy colors.

While the action sequences are spectacular, there is, unfortunately, an awful lot of waiting between them, and sometimes even during them. The movie drags on for nearly 140 minutes, and while it doesn’t feel that long, it certainly feels at least 15-20 minutes longer than it needs to be. The dramatic scenes tend to drag despite the best effort of Hirsch (who does his best with a fairly one-note role) and Goodman (who does a phenomenal job sliding between teddy bear and grizzly bear modes), due to lingering camera angles and an almost complete lack of music outside of the racing scenes. The Wachowskis also go way overboard virtually every time Speed’s kid brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim take the screen. While the movie’s obviously aimed at kids, the over-caffeinated shenanigans of Spritle and Chim-Chim feel unnecessarily wacky and out of place, like they teleported in from Mike Myers’ terrible Cat in the Hat film. Perhaps the film’s biggest problem, though, is its overly convoluted plot, a labyrinthine maze of backdoor business hoo-ha that takes eons to get going without offering a suitable payoff.

Despite the film’s length, many characters remain underdeveloped, but they’re fun to get a look at while they last. Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) starts off as little more than a generic love interest, but she gets a few fun action scenes in the film’s middle third. There are also appearances of other classic characters, like the Racers’ mechanic Sparky, the no-nonsense Inspector Detector, and even Speed Racer’s original voice, Peter Fernandez, who makes a quick cameo as an announcer during the film’s first race. Though he isn’t given nearly enough to do, Fox is the best thing in the movie as Racer X, perfectly capturing the stoic, emotionless badassery that made the cartoon original a fan favorite.

Sure, it’s overly long, overly complicated, and overly kiddified, but it also has excellent acting, a funny script, and phenomenal action sequences both inside and outside the cars. Speed Racer is a hard film to recommend outright because of its many flaws, but its visual style is so singular, so downright gorgeous, and so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before that odds are anyone who opts to wait for DVD will be kicking themselves for not soaking in the visuals on the big screen while they had the chance. | Jason Green

 

 

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