No, Speed Racer, no!
It’s a sad state of affairs for your film when the best thing about it is outtake footage of a chimp played during the closing credits. Speed Racer is a mess, a movie about car racing that’s more than two hours long and features not one auto race that can be followed, understood or, for that matter, enjoyed. The Wachowski Brothers, the brilliant team behind the first Matrix and also, unfortunately, the complete nuts behind its two sequels, are trying for something new and special with this one. What they wind up with is a very expensive, catastrophically failed experiment.
The oddest thing about this film is that its best parts involve people just sitting around chatting. That’s probably because 1) the Wachowskis managed to assemble a fine cast including Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci and John Goodman and 2) the quiet moments give your eyes a rest from the CGI cluster-fuck the directors try to pass for action.
The Wachowskis and their technical team employ a visual style that doesn’t really look like anything we’ve seen before, and that’s probably a good thing because it’s acid on the eyes. It’s a strange hybrid of Tron, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and whiz-bang video games. The combination might sound like a good time, but it’s not. It’s a waste of time.
Everything is very bright and bubbly, with much of the film shot in front of green screens with backgrounds added via computer wizardry. As films like Sky Captain have proven, when live actors are integrated into a digital world in a bad way, you get a movie with no soul. Speed Racer has no soul. Heck, even diehard racing fans won’t dig it because the film spends a relatively small amount of time on cars and the art of racing.
The plot involves some sort of nonsense involving Speed Racer’s (Hirsch) family trying to avoid evil corporate sponsorship and remain a family racing organization. That’s right, it’s a family film about the evils of corporate sponsorship. You know these kids today; they’re all about video games, skateboarding, and watching films about evil corporations trying to corrupt sweet family businesses. They can’t get enough of that corporate world shit!
As Speed Racer, Hirsch is his usual good self, lending a certain high quality to the proceedings, even if those proceedings aren’t giving him anything back. Christina Ricci has the look for Trixie, but she isn’t given much to do. Goodman does well enough as Speed’s protective dad, and Susan Sarandon is sweet as his mom. Matthew Fox is alright in the character of Racer X, a mask wearing mystery man who isn’t all that mysterious when you get down to it. No big surprises when his character origin is revealed.
The film contains many races, some of them on a racetrack and some of them cross-country. None of them contain anything resembling tension because the Wachowskis stage things in a way that makes the racers indistinguishable. It’s just a bunch of pixels smashing you in the face, with occasional shots of actors in car interiors looking determined.
The best thing I can say about the movie is that the kids loved it. In the screening I attended, I heard a lot of youngsters squealing with delight, especially at the antics of Speed’s younger brother Spritle (played by the interesting Paulie Litt) and Chim Chim the Chimp. Litt has a cool wiseguy delivery with his lines, like he were straight out of a Dead End Kids movie from the ‘30s. His performance is easily the most amusing in the movie, besides the chimp’s.
The film is overlong, and I could swear it was going to end on at least three occasions. It’s one of those films where, if you are sitting toward the back of the theater, you’ll see everybody’s cellular phone screens blinking on and off as they check the time. The cell phone light show is more interesting than the damned movie.