Monday, May 12, 2008


As a kid, I was a huge Speed Racer fan.

It was one of the things I anticipated most on summer trips to Gulfport, MS--getting to see Speed Racer in the afternoon. (There was more to these excursions than that, of course, but SR was something my brother and I looked forward to.) The story was pretty simple: Speed races cars, has a girlfriend and pesky younger brother, and ends up in trouble with various evil drivers who try to make sure he never can finish the race. But he wins anyway.

I wasn't sure what to make of the Wachowski brothers putting Speed Racer up on the big screen. Having seen it... I'm still grappling with what to make of the Wachowski brothers putting Speed up on the big screen.

Let's do this right. Summary first, opinion last.

Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the second son of Pops and Mom Racer (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon). He's a race car driver--how odd that his name matches his career like that! hmm!--whose girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and buddy Sparky (Kick Gurry) double as his support team. He's also more-or-less helped by his little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and Spritle's chimpanzee Chim-Chim.

A cloud hangs over Speed and the Racer household. Speed's beloved older brother Rex (Scott Porter), who quit the family racing/car building business abruptly, has been dead for two years after a short career full of disgrace. Speed is now being courted by the megacorporations that sponsor international racing; a particularly sleazy corporate boss named Royalton (Roger Allam) is the first to entice Speed to consider corporate sponsorship, against Pops' deep skepticism.

But things are not as they appear. The appearance of the enigmatic Racer X (Matthew Fox) throws Speed for a loop, as corruption in racing rears its ugly head (epitomized by the vicious racer Snake Oiler [Christian Oliver]) and puts Speed's idols in a different light. Speed must make some tough choices--and learns that not everything is what it seems to be, on the track or off.

The movie is a blur of light (very brightly colored light) and sound (mostly roaring motors), with a veneer of plot to keep the various race scenes strung together. It's probably on par with most Elvis movies, where the point was to keep the spotlight on the star amid a whirlwind of activity. Hirsch acquits himself well as a young man struggling with adult responsibilities, though his one expression behind the wheel appears to be intense discomfort. Ricci, as Trixie, is well cast if only for her manga-esque features; she hangs in gamely with the dialogue and plot twists, though.

The cast is generally strong, with Goodman in particular turning in a nuanced performance (mostly) as Pops Racer. He even manages to salvage what could have been a jaw-droppingly dumb fight scene. His strength comes in a couple of scenes where he brings greater depth to Pops than he could have.

The story isn't bad--corruption is pretty good as a driver for action movies--but the explanations for how this dirty business works rushes by pretty fast and seems a bit abstract for its effects on the Racer family. It's sort of like describing how Enron's collapse would affect a telemarketer in Encino. Yeah, there might be a connection but it's not necessarily life and death for the telemarketer, you know?

Speed's car, the incredible Mach 5, has a bunch of gadgets--including spring-loaded jacks, buzzsaw cutters, crampon-spouting tires (which can replace themselves, too), and a bulletproof canopy--and we see Speed use just about every one of them. That was pretty awesome.

Apart from that bit of awesome, however, the movie's race sequences feel like they're suited more to Hot Wheels: the Movie than Speed Racer. The action takes place inside incredibly vast racing arenas, one of them apparently intercontinental, and while that's okay, what makes it tough is that the cinematography makes it hard to tell what's happening. The Mach 5 bounces around like a pinball in many scenes, so that you can't tell if Speed is in trouble... or has the bad guys right where he wants them. Plus there's a "use the Force" moment that's too ridiculous to explain further.

I'd give SPEED RACER one and a half out of four stars. It's too long and hyperactive for little kids--plus there's one really age-inappropriate gesture-- so think twice before you take the little ones. It's not a terrible movie, it really isn't, but it's not above what most film lovers deride as "mindless summer blockbusters" either.

You can see more reviews here.

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