Directors: Larry and Andy Wachowski
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox
Running Time: 135 min.
** (out of ****)
Speed Racer proves that there is such a thing as being too faithful to the source material you’re adapting. When it ended I asked myself, “Who is this for?” Adults who were fans of the 1960’s animated series will be turned off by the fact that the film is aimed squarely at kids and kids will be turned off by the fact that it feels longer than Lawrence of Arabia. So much is packed into the film visually that it’s mind numbing, which is why it’s so surprising that despite all those special effects the film also manages to be mind numbingly boring.
In exhibiting an almost slavish devotion to the cartoon the Wachowski brothers (in their first directorial outing since the last Matrix film) may have realized their adolescent dreams on screen, but somewhere along the way forgot to make a coherent film. Instead, it’s an unpleasant, at times nauseating experience that bites off way more than it can chew.
The younger viewers who don’t fall asleep from boredom are only going to be confused by the complicated plot or frightened by many of the film’s darker elements. It’s rated PG, but there’s a lot of stuff in here that just doesn’t fit the tone, such as mobsters so scary they’d seem excessive in a Scorcese picture. I’ve only seen the old cartoon a few times, but still wondered how these guys would be able to make an entertaining movie out of such a thin premise. I got my answer: They can’t. Instead, the basic story is presented and the remainder of the running time is padded with nonsense. The good news is the talented actors involved, for all the embarrassment they endure, will be able to brush themselves off and work another day. I’m not so sure the same can be said for the Wachowski brothers.
His whole life Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) has dreamed of becoming a racecar driver and following in the footsteps of his world famous, record-setting brother Rex Racer (Friday Night Lights’ Scott Porter). In a long series of confusing flashback sequences we find out Rex was killed in the vicious Casa Cristo rally and disgraced publicly as a cheater. I think. I’m just glad there wasn’t a quiz following the film because it cuts back and forth between flashbacks and present day so often it’s impossible to tell what’s going on.
Speed’s parents, Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon) run an independent racecar building business and have not only mourned the death of their eldest son but also the sport succumbing to big money corporate conglomerates like Royalton Industries, run by the greedy Mr. Royalton (a scene-munching Roger Allum). Royalton makes Speed an offer he decides he can refuse and in doing so he puts his own career and life in jeopardy. He must team up with longtime girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci) and one-time rival Racer X (Matthew Fox) to compete in the Casa Cristo race and in the process expose and destroy Royalton’s corrupt empire. Racer X may or may not have a secret that the studio hasn't exactly been judicious in concealing. Anyone familiar with the cartoon probably knows what it is.
On the surface this looks like a children’s movie, but the script attempts (rather laughably) to tackle some serious social issues like consumerism and sports corruption, except its presented in the form of a bizarre cotton candy colored convection of emptiness that plays like a Disney remake of Rollerball. The special effects skirt the line between comic and real, baring a not so subtle similarity to an actual Disney film, 1982’s Tron. But whereas that film had a simplistic, innocent approach to its visuals that brilliantly reflected the technology of the time, this is just sensory overkill.
Sure, the movie looks impressive but so what? You can't tell what's happening at all. There’s a fight sequence late in the film that’s so visually ill-conceived I found myself laughing hysterically. It looked like a drug trip. A really bad one. There isn’t a lot of ACTUAL violence in the picture but there’s so much implied violence and menace you’d have to wonder not only why the Wachowskis would present it in a circus-like atmosphere, but also what age group the film is supposed to be targeting.
All of this could be forgivable if the script wasn’t so unfocused. It starts with an intriguing premise but seems to lose its way and get sidetracked in the film's second unbearably jumbled hour. There comes a point where you can rely so heavily on visual effects and so much is going on that everything almost becomes meaningless. At about the 100-minute mark I had forgotten when I even started the film. It seemed like decades ago because the second hour is filled with such useless padding. I actually found myself starting to doze off and by the time the final race came I had officially had it. I didn’t care how it ended.
This isn’t the kind of material that will bring out the best in even the most accomplished actors since they have to perform against a green screen for much of the film. Emile Hirsch barely registers at all as the title character and it’s difficult to believe this is the same actor who gave one of the best un-nominated performances of the decade in Into The Wild. The nicest that can be said for Christina Ricci is that she looks great. She’s given absolutely nothing to do. Racer’s relationship with Trixie isn’t fleshed out well at all and she comes off as more of a distracting appendage than an important force in his life. It’s a shame too because you can see Ricci trying to bring the character to life but the script was just working against her. She does fit the role perfectly and bares a striking resemblance to her cartoon counterpart, as do most of the other actors here. As misguided as this film is at least it’s cast exceptionally well.
John Goodman is basically asked to mug for the camera for over 2 hours (which he does) while we’re also treated to a really grating child performance from Paulie Litt as Speed’s littler brother, Spritle Racer. He has a pet chimpanzee and every scene in which they both appear approaches torture, and unfortunately, there are many of them. And don’t forget to stay through the closing credits for some more monkey business (literally) and the butchering of the famous Speed Racer theme.
The only two actors who not only escape free of embarrassment, but actually deliver good performances with limited screen time are Scott Porter and Matthew Fox. Porter gives us a reason to care early about the relationship between Rex and Speed even while the Wachowskis are occupied with swirling pretty colors. But Fox puts forth far and away the best effort and it helps a lot that he’s handed the film’s only meaningful story arc. It hints at what this could have been. As the mysterious, masked Racer X he seems to be acting in another movie…a far better one. And it occurred to me watching that if for some reason Christian Bale can’t return for the next Batman sequel I’m convinced Fox could take over and own it like it’s nobody’s business. He’s essentially playing a variation of that role here.
Speaking of The Dark Knight, I don’t think it helped that I saw that film before this one. While wildly different in tone and approach, both are based on comic characters and a comparison makes this movie look especially ridiculous, almost as if it’s from a bygone era: pre-July '08. The rules have changed. It proves that the genre was in need of a major shift that thankfully came but the unintended consequence is that it dates this, at least for now. Sometimes when a film is widely panned by critics and audiences a possible explanation is that the filmmakers are thinking at such a brilliant, visionary level that the mainstream can’t keep up. This isn’t one of those cases. The public was right to reject this.
I can see how fans of the old cartoon would enjoy the film because it’s rigidly faithful to that and it wouldn’t shock me to see this pick up a cult following in coming years. It’s so off the wall and bizarre only talented filmmakers could have made it. But that doesn’t make it good. The Matrix films were dog and pony special effects shows masquerading as something philosophically important. This isn’t as insulting because it doesn’t pretend to have any substance, but it’s more of a chore to sit through. Maybe Larry and Andy Wachowski can go skipping into the sunset pleased that they were faithful to their favorite character, but for everyone else Speed Racer is an unintelligible mess.