Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 3, 2008)
Maybe someday Larry and Andy Wachowski will be credited other than as ďthe directors of the Matrix trilogyĒ, but it wonít happen today. 2008ís Speed Racer was their first flick since 2003ís disappointing Matrix Revolutions, and their only non-Matrix effort since 1996ís Bound. Though positioned as one of the yearís big summer blockbusters, Racer tanked. It took in a poor $43 million and became destined to be regarded as the yearís biggest disappointment.
Even as a child, all Speed Racer (Nicholas Elia) cared about was racing cars. His father Pops (John Goodman) designed cars, and he looked up to his older brother Rex (Scott Porter), a hotshot driver. Alas, that story ends in tragedy, as Rex sells out to some underworld rivals and then apparently dies in a crash.
Though rocked by these events, an older Speed (Emile Hirsch) follows in Rexís footsteps and becomes the driver of the zippy Mach 5. Supported by Pops, Mom (Susan Sarandon), girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), Speed turns into the racing worldís newest sensation.
Speed resists many entreaties from sponsors, even when tycoon EP Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) makes him a terrific offer. This earns Speed the enmity of Royalton and his cronies, and our hero learns about the corruption rampant in the World Racing League. With the assistance of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and others, Speed attempts to fight back at the baddies and becomes the worldís greatest driver.
When I was young, I loved me some Speed Racer. We adults bemoan the five-cent animation, the idiotic stories and the one-dimensional characters, but kids donít care. I thought Speed was great stuff as a youngster, and I think modern kids still dig this stuff; a friendís three-year-old watches the show on a near-continuous basis.
Itís been so long since I was a fan of the series that I really canít remember a lot about it. This means I find it difficult to know which of the movieís stylistic choices emanated from the show and which ones developed from the Wachowskis. If the filmís cheesier elements were directly lifted from the series, I feel a little hesitant to criticize them.
But just a little, because I donít think the choice to stay true to source material should excuse tacky filmmaking. Thatís true in all instances, but especially so when the original work was as lame as the Racer TV series. Like I mentioned, I obviously donít begrudge little kids their enjoyment of the show, but face it - Racer really was pretty terrible. For a movie based on the series to be good, it needs to take advantage of the interesting parts of the series but eliminate the many crummy elements.
Since I canít remember the TV show very well, I canít make many comparisons between the two. I can say that the movie feels cheesy and silly much of the time. I canít say how many of these excesses come straight from the series, but they remain problems nonetheless, as the movie tends to be awfully goofy, and not in a good way.
In truth, it seems like the Wachowskis canít decide what audience they seek. Racer includes plenty of comedic, over the top bits clearly aimed at youngsters; who else would be entertained by the antics of Spritle and his chimp pal Chim-Chim? However, the movie comes with some adult language, a murky plot, and an excessive running time of 135 minutes, all of which distance it from a youthful crowd.
Itís unclear if the Wachowskis tried to serve two audiences and satisfied neither or if they just made a mess of a movie. Whatever the case may be, Racer lacks the thematic coherence to work for either the kids or the adults, an issue exacerbated by editing choices. Often the film undercuts drama with cutaways to wackiness. For instance, one scene in which Speed confronts Royalton gets intercut with shots of Spritle and Chim-Chim as they raid a massive candy stash. The latter elements completely rob the sequence of its impact.
Even during driving sequences, the Wachowskis canít leave well enough alone. Rather than focus solely on the action, they cut away to character introductions and other dalliances that distract us from the potential excitement. These decisions turn scenes that should dazzle into muddled, ineffective sequences.
Many films have been described as video games brought to the big screen, but Racer truly comes closer to that than anything else Iíve ever seen. The movie features a bright, wild palette that leaps off the screen, and the action bears no connection to reality. I donít mind the trippy colors, but the complete absence of the laws of physics becomes a bigger problem.
Sure, weíre supposed to see Racer as a cartoon fantasy, but the decision to treat the racing sequences like bits out of a video game saps them of excitement. Itís ironic that these over the top sequences actually become less effective due to their wildness, but itís true. Because the cars never behave like real vehicles, it becomes impossible to invest in the action. Itís all so silly and absurd that we donít care what happens, and the excitement level drops to near zero.
In truth, Speed Racer isnít a terrible movie, as it musters some minor entertainment value. Unfortunately, it runs too long and it cares too much about visual impact and too little about story telling. At no point do we ever really care what happens, and the cartoon action scenes are so goofy that they lack power. The movie stuns in terms of visuals but falls flat in every other way.