Speed Racer Movie Review
With the curiosity usually reserved for a cat chasing a laser pointer, I popped Speed Racer into my DVD player today, with hopes that it would serve as decent background noise while I toiled away at my day job but expectations that it would be a complete waste of time. The fact that the movie isn't nearly as bad as I was expecting is almost disappointing.
Emile Hirsch, one of the most respectable but consistently underrated young actors working today, stars as the title character, an eager beaver who is considered one of the best racers in the world, sort of like Anakin Skywalker before he fell in love with a woman who looks like Natalie Portman, went crazy and turned into a legless freak named Darth Vader. One of the largest corporations in the world tries to sponsor him, but when Speed Racer refuses, the corporation sets out to destroy him. That doesn't stop Speed from entering a race that is known to be fixed and to overthrow the big old corporation once and for all. Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Matthew Fox and Susan Sarandon also got tricked into starring in this picture.
The Wachowski brothers, best known for The Matrix, continue to prove that they are one-hit wonders with Speed Racer. While the movie isn't the disaster I was expecting, it is clear that these brothers have lost touch with their audiences and have become overconfident in their ability to wow audiences with snazzy special effects. If Speed Racer isn't the perfect example of style over substance, I don't know what is. The movie is colorful eye candy from beginning to end, and I give props to the Wachowskis for doing something completely different. The movie plays out like a live-action cartoon, only nothing like the hilarious Shaolin Soccer. I was quick to discount the movie when I first saw the previews a year ago; the movie looked terrible in execution and everything else.
On the one hand, Speed Racer is a visual feast that's worthy of something... what, I don't know. The visual style and graphics are something to behold, and at times quite mesmerizing. At the same time, they are so outlandish and intentionally unrealistic that the movie loses itself. While the Wachowskis got me caught up in the excitement of the races more than I expected, the film certainly didn't engage me to the degree that it needed to. It's hard to get excited about a race sequence where you know the worst that will happen is a couple of pixels will explode here and there. Furthermore, when the Wachowskis try other kinds of action - like hand-to-hand combat - the results are just terribly cheesy. And since the movie is rated PG, don't expect anything too violent, either.
The real problem with Speed Racer is not, ultimately, the special effects, but instead the fact that the Wachowskis forgot to make an exciting story to complement those effects. If they had just set out to make a kid's movie, I'd understand, but even though this film was based on a cartoon, you have to imagine that the studio, the Wachowskis and everyone else involved were hoping for some real box office dollars, not a $13-million dud. The story is OK, but nothing special. The writing is dreadful, perhaps intentionally so, as the only interesting characters are the little kid and his chimp. Hirsch, Goodman, Sarandon, Ricci and Fox are all wasted; Hirsch, if he was meant to be the main character, didn't leave a single lasting impression in my mind. On top of all that, the Wachowskis have a little too much fun with their film; they forgot to make some of the race sequences exciting, forgot that they were trying to tell a cohesive story and so on and so forth. The choice of music is also generally poor, and doesn't get the audience in the right mind set.
Still, surprisingly enough, I found some of the race sequences sort of exciting. On the flip side, though, the races strike amazing similarity to the pod race scene in The Phantom Menace, and say what you will about the Star Wars prequels and even the necessity of said scene, but the pod race was a seriously exciting sequence. Speed Racer pales in comparison. Let's not forget the awesome car chase scene in The Matrix Reloaded, too.
Speed Racer is more watchable than I was expecting, but it is a movie that everyone involved should have identified as a big flop long before it ever completed production. A better screenplay and more attention to maintaining the excitement factor could have made Speed Racer something, but ultimately it's a lot of flash without much bang.
Review by Robert Bell (C)
As cinema gradually evolves, it becomes increasingly clear that storytelling is becoming less of a priority. Glossy hyper-stylized images and hackneyed, insincere emotional catharsis are the wave of the future, as are indecipherable frenetic action sequences designed to overwhelm the senses with an almost orgasmic glee. Hollow excess and easily digested "wow" moments give a desensitized audience the homogenized escapist crap they so desperately seek; unwilling and unable to pause or reflect on anything with meaning. It's only logical, given the rapid take-no-prisoners, pop-a-pill-to-stifle-unwelcome-feelings culture we have become. Everything we do is designed to escape from reality: our entertainment, dream vacations and misguided career focus are all just filler, despite the requirements of emotional development, which need downtime and personal reflection in order to find a personal purpose and reason. Then again, isn't it that much easier to just quash away all of those feelings of confusion and inadequacy by accepting the ideologies and distorted moral codes of the majority? It is. And if we distract ourselves long enough while going through the motions of expectation, we may not even notice how utterly stupid and frivolous our surface driven lives are. Then again, happiness is defined by the individual, and maybe designer sneakers and a fancy new refrigerator is all one needs to feel satisfied in this world.
Speed Racer is the latest flash-in-a-pan innovation by the brothers Wachowski. Utterly impressive from a visual standpoint, almost begging to be seen on the big screen, Speed is a colourful, insanely stylized, aesthetic treat. This is the deep fried chocolate bar of cinema, featuring some intense and gorgeously shot action and races - that is, if the action can be made out, and if the endless exposition doesn't act as a tranquilizer. Clocking in at over two hours the film tests audience patience; shifting in tone too frequently and wasting time on an unnecessarily complex story that preaches the evils of powerful corporations who exploit heartfelt fun for financial gain.
Even as a child, Speed (Emile Hirsch) dreamed of being a racecar driver. It consumed him and every waking moment of his life. This is unsurprising, as he comes from racing stock, Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops (John Goodman) are embedded in the world, as is Speed's older brother Rex (Scott Porter). When a mysterious accident takes the life of Rex, the family is thrown into a funk.
Aided by his plucky, and uber-supportive girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), Speed continues on with his racing fancies, garnering recognition in the minor leagues. This sparks the interest of Royalton (Roger Allam), who wants to sign Speed on to his corporate team of elite, high-tech racers. When Speed turns down the deal, he begins to learn of a corrupt sport that is controlled by financiers and business ambition. Fighting the instinct to let his passion be crushed by harsh realities, Speed teams up with Racer X (Matthew Fox) to try and take down the corporations.
Unsurprisingly, Speed delivers on the visual frenzy is advertises. The racing sequences feature jaw-dropping colour and style, staying true to the source Mach Go Go Go anime the film stems from. Cars jump through mid-air, drive up cliffs, crash into each other, spin around, drive upside down and speed along with visual gusto. Techniques used to deliver in-race conversation are particularly effective, maintaining visual urgency, while offering needed exposition. It's just a shame that the excess editing and constant chaos make it so difficult to make out at times.
Even sequences shot away from the action are visually impressive, impeccable costumes, makeup and set design, when matched with the stunning framing devices employed by the Wachowski's, make the film uniquely interesting throughout. But this is all the film has to offer.
The story is so unnecessarily convoluted and overdone that most audience members will find themselves checking their watch while waiting for the next race. If there were any depth or insight beyond "money and power is bad" this may have been justified, but instead Speed offers nearly 45 minutes of stylized exposition. Adding pretty colours to a lengthy discussion of corporate intricacy doesn't make it a great deal more exciting to watch.
In addition, there are a number of emotional oversimplifications. Pre-packaged heartfelt discussion are scattered throughout, giving context to the already generic relationships that Speed has with each person in his life. Perhaps some interest or emotional connection could have been salvaged from these sequences if Emile Hirsch didn't always seem so bored, confused and disconnected. He acts as a sounding board with absolutely no depth or uniqueness of character.
Also worth mentioning is the sheer level of annoyance the character of Spirtle (Paulie Litt), Speed's porky younger brother, adds to the film. Incongruous and often anarchic sequences of him creating mischief with his monkey are so grating and cutesy that it's tempting to throw miscellaneous items at the movie screen; be it cabbage, cell phones or a spare child.
Cutesy kid scenes add to the tonality issues of the film, as they are often juxtaposed with death, or sequences involving grisly gangsters torturing racers and threatening to feed them to piranhas. It's difficult to know how to feel when the film jumps from violent, to sad, to quirky, to comic, to angry every five minutes.
Many audience members will be able to overlook these flaws, as they are essentially in the theatre for the sole purpose of experiencing visual mayhem. And on that aspect, the film delivers.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.