I walked into Speed Racer tonight armed with multiple viewings of the film’s brightly colored trailers and padded with the certainty that this was either going to be the most groundbreaking movie of the year, or one hell of a mess. Unbelievably, Speed Racer is neither. Despite all the flashing lights and over the top camp, the Wachowski’s have accomplished the impossible with their first movie since finishing the destruction of The Matrix, by making a garish, over the top movie based on a vaguely remembered cartoon that is, against all odds, painfully mediocre.
It’s not the fault of their cast who, despite being plopped in front of a green screen and being asked to emote to thin air, deliver. Emile Hirsch plays the titular Speed Racer (yes that’s really his name), a kid who was born to race. He’s intense and likable, managing to bring real heat and emotion to a film rooted in the cold, empty world of computer generated effects. The need for speed consumes his character from an early age, and in an introductory sequence which seems to languish on forever, the film drags us through a series of unnecessary flashbacks showing us Speed as a kid idolizing his race car driving brother Rex and daydreaming of driving really fast. Soon we meet his entire family, the lovable and quirky Racers, a clan devoted to fast cars with the same kind of obsessive dedication which the Hatfields once applied to killing the McCoys. And of course there’s Speed’s girlfriend, the pink-clad and sweet Trixie, played cute by the human being most likely to have been an actual anime character in a former life, Christina Ricci.
After eons of introduction, Speed is the newbie on the track, impressing people with his crazy awesome racing skills and giving the Wachowskis a chance to blow our mind with their insanely computer generated racing world. The effects are blinding, sometimes literally, with bright colors blaring out of the screen and cars whirling through a dizzying array of courses which look as if they were designed by Hot Wheels, if Mattel had the power to suspend the laws of motion and gravity, and then having accomplished that decided to build their tracks out of uranium just for kicks. The races look like Tron on steroids, and I can’t help wondering if this particular style might have been better suited to Disney’s impending sequel to that movie, than this.
Speed Racer gains some notoriety and the big racing companies are quick to start courting him. Speed Racer resists, preferring to stay with his family’s independent racing team. This doesn’t fly, and soon the film becomes the story of the little guy fighting against corporate fat cats who fix races and kill anyone who gets in their way. In the mix is a wild card named Racer X, a mysterious figure wearing a black, full body condom and played by Lost’s Matthew Fox. X is the movie’s badass, and at first it’s not entirely clear whose side he’s on. Despite his humiliating getup, Fox seems to be having a lot of fun with the part, and damn if he doesn’t pull it off.
Unfortunately the Wachowskis don’t pull it off, not entirely. The plot is hackneyed and needlessly complicated. It’s full of strange holes where story devices are left unexplained while at the same time other things are over-explained to the point of boredom. Worse, they don’t actually trust their audience to enjoy what they’re doing. I kept waiting for that transcendent moment that happens in every good racing movie, where time stands still and our driver hero becomes one with the car, doing something so spectacular the audience merges with him, becoming one with the excitement. That moment may actually exist in Speed Racer, I saw several which might have done the trick, if only the Wachowskis had enough faith in themselves and their audience to let their characters actually inhabit them. Instead, the movie can’t sit still long enough for us to get into any of the really exciting stuff they have going on in the film. Every racing sequence is inter cut with jumps and wipes and inserts to other scenes in other places, or to myriads of reaction shots from various family members as they show off how they feel about each of Speed’s perfectly executed racing moves.
It’s as if the Wachowskis felt it necessary to punctuate every cool moment with a big flashing sign telling us “hey this is where you’re supposed to cheer”, except they never give us a chance to actually do it before they rub our noses in it. Most of the movie’s best moments are undercut this way, with stumblebum interference that’s little more than extraneous clutter. Maybe it has something to do with targeting the film towards kids. After all, any movie with this many Crayola colors in it isn’t going for subtlety. Did the Wachowskis think kids wouldn’t be able to figure out where the good parts were in their movie unless they came out and told them? It doesn’t work. The good parts stop being good when you fail to let the audience enjoy them.
Speed Racer walks that razor’s edge of mediocrity throughout, with every positive equaled by a negative. It takes crazy camp to an entirely unheard of level and embraces CGI in a way that will almost certainly make George Lucas drool all over his flannel shirt, when it’s not annoying the shit out of him with billions of flashy lights. The performances are great and the wacky sense of humor the Wachowskis stick into this thing is just weird enough to be great, but the plot more often than not tries to bite off more than it can chew.
Whatever it’s flaws, there’s no denying how completely original Speed Racer is. Unfortunately, originality alone is not enough to justify its existence. Kids may like it for all the bright colors and relatable young characters, but a year from now it’s unlikely anyone will remember or care about Speed Racer, except as that other movie from the guys who made The Matrix. Let’s hope it’s not the last we hear from them.