Speed Racer

Warner Bros. Pictures
Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski/United States 2008

When Speed Racer works, it is like nothing you have ever seen. And when it careens off the track, cartwheels end over end through the air and disintegrates upon impact with the hard, unforgiving earth, it is still like nothing you have ever seen. I’m not saying I liked the film, but I have to revere its outlandish audacity.

Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) was born to race cars. A natural behind the wheel, his abilities are limitless, his instincts flawless and his fear nonexistent. Encased in the glistening Mach 5 – the car designed by his father Pops Racer (John Goodman) – Speed is nearly invulnerable. But his dreams for checkered flags are dashed when he turns down a lucrative deal with ruthless business tycoon Royalton (Roger Allam) in favor of staying with his family’s racing business. Since the very beginning, the world’s biggest races have been rigged by Royalton and his cronies to boost profits. If Speed won’t fall into line, Royalton vows, he’s finished.

The only way for Speed to save his family’s business and continue doing what he loves is to beat the Royalton machine at its own game. And to do that, he has to win The Crucible, a death defying, cross-country race that claimed the life of Speed’s beloved older brother Rex 10 years earlier. Teaming up with his steadfast girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci) and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), a fellow driver with one wallop of a secret, Speed sets out to prove that good guys always finish first and cheaters never prosper.

Speed Racer is the first film for the Wachowski Brothers since their Matrix trilogy. Their new film is unapologetically, in your face, tongue in cheek. It celebrates its corniness, reveling in crossing the line from reality to riotous, zealous, gleeful fantasy time and again. Some of it really works, so long as you are willing to be taken for a ride. Other scenes, most notably those involving Speed’s younger brother and his pet chimpanzee, are the biggest things to tip the annoying scale since Jar Jar Binks hit Star Wars. Unfortunately, they pop up so often they constitute much of the film’s bloated running time. The two hours and 15 minutes wouldn’t be an issue if the film didn’t bog down its momentum in an unnecessarily complex narrative.

Speed Racer plays like one long LSD trip. The colors are miles beyond ordinary – eye-popping, vibrant, luminescent versions of normal. They bleed, smear, streak and burst across the screen like fireworks. This is Dick Tracy moved a century into the future. The world in which Speed and his family live is a mash-up of sterile 1950s sensibilities and ’60s’ hallucinogenic aesthetics. Landmarks are recognizable, but wildly enhanced.

No matter how good special effects become, there is always someone complaining that they looked “cartoonish”. And often, they’re right. A dinosaur here or there works, but entire CG worlds still come across as glossy, counterfeit replicas of the real thing. Rather than try and overcome this hurdle, Speed Racer exploits it. Most of the time, the film looks and feels like the slick cartoon on which it is based. Like last year’s 300, Speed Racer is an almost entirely virtual environment. Unfortunately, we rarely have a moment to simply catch our breath and appreciate the admittedly stellar universe created for the film. The editing is so kinetic it may induce seizures, and the camera moves around so much it must suffer from ADD.

The racing scenes – when you can follow the action – are incredible. The racers pilot their cars on tracks more akin to behemoth futuristic Möbius strips, more loopty loop roller coasters than traditional speedways. Speed Racer puts you in the driver’s seat of those arcade games you used to play as a kid, careening through populated cities one moments and expansive countryside the next.

Speed Racer is cotton candy – light, bright, airy and sweet. It tastes good but immediately melts to nothing in your mouth. Still, love it or hate it, you’ve never experienced anything like it.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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