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Speed Racer (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 09 May 2008
If there ever was a movie about which it could be said, “If you like this kind of movie, this movie is the kind you’ll like,” it’s “Speed Racer.” Some people are likely to stick critical judgment under the chair and go with the flow; others will find their eyes glazing over five minutes into the movie. It’s made on a lavish scale with a large cast and a very busy plot—or rather, several rather simple plots that keep intersecting and altering each other.

The movie is faithful to the elderly Japanese anime TV series; the theme song with the simple chorus (“go Speed Racer go”) is occasionally heard in the background, and the opening credits image of Speed Racer leaping nimbly out of his race car is recreated in something approximating live action.

The whole movie is something approximating live action. Reality has never looked like this, nor have very many movies. It’s a neon-colored, high-style scramble of CGI imagery, vividly intense primary colors (the reds are enough to blast you out of your seat all by themselves) and exaggerated emotions and reactions. I was reminded at times of “Dick Tracy,” at others of “Ultraviolet” (and who wants to be reminded of that?). A friend says it’s graphically somewhat like the TV series “Pushing Up Daisies,” which I haven’t seen, but maybe you have.

This was filmed in Germany, probably for budgetary reasons, but it doesn’t make any difference where it was shot—nothing, absolutely nothing, on screen looks like real life. The exteriors (if there are any) have been so altered by post-production work that they might as well have been created entirely with computer graphics technology. And maybe they were. There’s one sequence in a forest at night, but the trees are a dark (but still fluorescent) green and the Moon is hot orange. Race cars slide over sand dunes the color of the flesh of a ripe papaya. Real or CGI—it makes no difference, the Wachowskis have stuck to their style scheme throughout.

The title of the movie is the name of the hero, rather like a story about a boxer called Fist Hitter, or a swordsman named Flash Duelist. He’s played, or impersonated, by Emile Hirsch, so good in last year’s “Into the Wild.” The role here hardly seems challenging. Speed has wanted to drive fast ever since he was a kid, and despite the death of his idolized older brother Rex in a major cross-country race. His father, never called anything but Pops (John Goodman) is the World’s Greatest Race Car Builder, his mother, Mom (Susan Sarandon), is the wife of the World’s Greatest Car Builder. That’s about the extent of their characterizations, but both actors are hard-working pros, and do their best to drag something like real people onto the jukebox-like scene. After Rex’s death, the Racers had another son, unaccountably called Spritle (Paulie Litt), always accompanied by a photogenic chimpanzee named Chim Chim, played by two young chimps. (Is his last name Cheree?) The Wachowski Brothers direct on the time-honored principle of “when in doubt, cut to the kid and the monkey,” which served the directors of the MGM and RKO Tarzan movies well for so many years. Your delight in these many (many) cutaways will depend on how funny you think it is to see a chimpanzee grimace.
Royalton (Roger Allan, the most entertaining feature of the movie) is an immensely rich and powerful man who tries to sponsor Speed Racer, who has his doubts despite all the wonders Royalton offers his entire family. When he finally decides not to sign with Royalton, who flies into a rage, declaring “all that matters is power and the unassailable might of money!” This clearly identifies him as a villain. There’s a secondary villain, Cruncher Block (John Benfield), who cruises the highway in his office (a truck), with his henchmen and an aquarium tank full of movie-style piranha. He’s currently torturing racer Taejo Togokhan (Rain), though just why gets lost in all the visual and aural noise. We later meet Taejo’s sister, with tiny pursed lips, and his squillionaire father. Taejo is rescued by mysterious, masked Racer X (Matthew Fox of “Lost”), a driving demon and Good Guy.

There’s a perplexing amount of talk about the value of the stocks held by Royalton and his rivalry with Togokhan. The plot also expends a lot of energy on the question of whether Racer X is actually Rex Racer, who didn’t die after all. And we’re supposed to be surprised, or something like that, upon learning that there’s a link between Royalton and Block.

All these stories head for two climaxes, the cross-country Casa Christo, the race that killed Rex Racer, and the finale, the Grand Prix. Guess who wins.

The Wachowskis, who also wrote, and producer Joel Silver, are apparently aiming at an all-family audience. The movie does earn its PG rating, though it’s hardly raunchy. In the last scene, Speed finally gets to kiss his girlfriend-since-childhood Trixie (Christina Ricci, looking exactly like the round-eyed girls so common in anime). But there’s no mush stuff before that.

However, you have to wonder why this made-for-the-whole-family movie runs 129 minutes. They’re very busy minutes, true, but this is really too long for most small kids to sit through without squirming. Even if they see it in IMAX, and it is being shown in that format here and there around the country.

Now, what does this all look like? Bright colors, as I said, and lots of CGI backgrounds. This is not our Earth, but a planet where there seems to be no poverty and only a little crime, a brightly-lit landscape of towering buildings, with highways—and race tracks—that snake about the cities. The race tracks even go over and under the mobs of spectators. This has more intense closeups than almost any major movie—but just closeups aren’t enough for the Wachowskis. Almost every closeup ends with the image, looking very two-dimensional, sliding off to the right or left, uncovering the next scene—which might well be another closeup that does the same thing. The races are all seen in the shortest takes possible; there may be more cuts in this movie than anything you’ve ever seen. This must have been a bitch to edit.

It’s full of colorful people, including lots of announcers speaking lots of language, shouting at us or at each other. Scenes come and go in a blink. The bad guys try to buy off the other Grand Prix contestants; one guy is given a suitcase full of money causing his eyes to develop dollar signs like a cartoon character. A bunch of racers who seem to be Vikings are given another suitcase, this one full of what looked like Tribbles. The race cars not only zip down the tracks, they’re frequently engaged in full physical combat—the cars flip over each other, both sideways and end for end. They grow saws and hammers, they spew oil, they go up the sides of the tracks. When they explode, the drivers are instantly encased in something that looks like millions of tiny bubbles. You get the impression after a while that the only racing fatality in recent history was Rex Racer—and maybe he’s not dead, either.

This is so far removed from reality that these cars don’t have internal combustion engines; they’re powered by “transponders,” which look like gaudy, lit-up parts for a Star Wars spaceship. But they’re put together in “foundries,” as though they’re pounded out of metal. All we need to know is that the cars have accelerator pedals (we’re often shown them) and steering wheels; there’s no other sense of how things work. Before he gets killed (or does he?), Rex tells kid brother Speed that the first thing to learn about racing is to drive, not steer. Become one with the car, I guess.

The actors hardly matter. Speed is Good personified—he dresses in white and drives a white car. (Rex drove a red one.) Hirsch isn’t acting, he’s merely a place on screen we’re supposed to invest with our emotions and interest. He’s an eye-catching actor, so he sometimes achieves this. (Note: that emblem on his helmet apparently is NOT the McDonald’s logo.) Racer X dresses in black, but he’s cool, too. The mask comes off near the end, and we see Matthew Fox relaxing into this something-like-a-role; he suffers the emotional and physical tortures of the damned every week on “Lost;” now he can just have fun, and seems to be doing just that.

Christina Ricci, with a Louise Brooks-like hairdo, is so thoroughly made up that she doesn’t look like herself, until she smiles and her face ignites. Roger Allam looks like Tim Curry’s more human brother, and shares some of Curry’s energy and skill in using his fleshy features. He’s great fun as the baddest guy in the movie, and surprisingly convincing. Much of the preview audience laughed at Paulie Litt, the youngest of the Racer family, but he mostly irritated me.

The whole movie is supposedly devoted to speed, to the highest velocity four wheels can achieve—but there’s very little sense of forward motion. The cars seem to hang in space, banging into each other, flipping over, always landing back on their wheels. It’s unfair to say that the movie has no sense of reality in the racing scenes, because of there’s no chance the Wachowskis were trying for reality. This isn’t even video game or cartoon territory, it’s its own thing, like it or not. The Wachowskis re-invented the action film with the first “Matrix” movie, and are clearly trying to accomplish something of the same here. But this isn’t likely to be the hit “The Matrix” was, because we simply don’t give a damn about the characters on screen.

That’s a major weakness here, but it’s hardly the most important. For many viewers, this is going to be anything other than entertainment—it’s an assault on your senses, a movie frantically determined to look frantic, to generate an equal frenzy in viewers. For those for whom this doesn’t work, “Speed Racer” will be, at best, a dizzying curiosity—but perhaps just a big, brightly-colored bore.

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