Speed Racer (2008/Theatrical Film Review)
Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox
Andy and Larry Wachowski
Review by Dante A. Ciampaglia
Rating: 4 out of 10
It’s possible, at the basest level, to say that “Speed Racer,” directed by Andy and
Larry Wachowski of “The Matrix” fame
and opening nationwide on May 9, is a success.
As a big-screen live-action adaptation of the late ‘60s Japanese
cartoon, the movie is faithful to a fault.
Like in the cartoon, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is addicted to
racing. His family, headed by Pops (John
Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon), is in the racing business. His girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), is
a racing nut, too. Unfortunately for the
Racers, they can’t just be a racing family.
Speed’s life as a racecar driver gets him all mixed up in international
plots—in the case of the movie, something nefarious is afoot to take over
commerce or some such nonsense.
Really, the plot doesn’t matter.
“Speed Racer” revels in the
cliché of style of substance. Garish
colors, hyperactive backgrounds that move and swirl behind talking heads, and
gaudy racecars and ostentatious racetracks were all part of “Speed Racer” the TV cartoon and they’re
utterly paramount to “Speed Racer”
as the big-screen live-action cartoon.
Even the actors look like they could’ve jumped right out of TV land into
real life: Hirsch, clad in tight t-shirts and ultra-skinny jeans, conjures
memories of the animated Speed, and Goodman is a dead ringer for the
lumbering-patriarch-with-a-heart-of-gold of the Racer family. Even the score by Michael Giacchino pays
homage to the original series through excellent compositions that meld the
show’s themes with the spirit of his score for “The Incredibles.”
But when it comes right down to it, the Wachowskis faithfulness is
the movie’s biggest fault. By
replicating the cartoon almost brushstroke-for-brushstroke—or, in this case,
pixel for brushstroke—the Wachowskis present the audience with what is essentially
a super high tech fancy version of live action interacting with animation. Except it’s not live action. Not really.
And it’s not animation. Sort of.
Take the movie’s first major set piece, a rally race in which all
the drivers are up to no good and have secondary—and sometime tertiary—reasons
for wanting to win the race. The rally
begins in a vaguely Egyptian town before heading out to the desert where,
apparently, the sand is packed tight enough to drive on. Speed’s Mach 5 and other cars and their
drivers—including Racer X (Matthew Fox) and the B squad from the Hanna-Barbera
cartoon “Wacky Racers”—engage in a
sort of ballet of flipping over one another, punching drivers in mid air, and
lobbing weapons—including a mechanized beehive launched via a car-mounted
catapult—at each other. All the scene is
missing is someone shrieking, “Now this is podracing!”
It’s all very pretty to look at and breathtaking. Except none of it’s real. Well, maybe the actors in the cars, and even
they are suspect most of the time. These
races, these cars, these environments don’t exist. So complete is this digital emersion that
even when Speed is sitting in real car it becomes suspect that the car is
actually real. But we’re supposed to
believe that Speed is actually in a car, that he’s actually driving, that he’s
actually in danger. At least I think so.
There is so much digital manipulation infringing on what little live
action there is that the line between the two becomes blurred. The digital
destruction is so total that you can’t even swoon over the mean machines
tearing up the racetracks. For a movie ostensibly about cars and racing to
offer zero opportunity to fetishize the automobiles at the center of it must be
held in cinematic contempt.
Not helping matters any is that no one in this
better-than-it-deserves cast is really able to work their talents. Over the course of the 129-minute runtime of
“Speed Racer”—which is far too long
to be subjected to such digital assault on the senses—the actors never have a chance
to act. How could they? Most of the time they’re working in a
green-screen environment. Rather than
acting, they’re reacting. Watch
out! A car crash over here! Look!
Something quasi-futuristic and interesting! Terrence Stamp famously
complained that when he “acted” with Natalie Portman in “Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace” he was really interacting
with a cardboard cut out of her. I’d be
surprised if the actors in “Speed Racer”
even had a set of Hot Wheels to give them guidance.
Goodman and Sarandon try, valiantly, to overcome the
green-screen-ness, and it’s obvious Ricci is having a good time in her various
skimpy Japanimation-inspired outfits and short-cropped hair and lines like
“Cool beans.” Fox, surprisingly, is the
stand-out. Racer X has the better
backstory, set up in seemingly endless exposition at the start of the movie,
and Fox mines it for all that it’s worth.
But since he’s on screen very little, it doesn’t really help matters
All things considered, the only way “Speed Racer” could have been a better adaptation of its source
material is if all “reality” was cut out of it.
Animate the humans with the same care and detail that the cars and
tracks are animated and you have a fairly complex piece of eye candy. Truly, the digital work here is
staggering. But reliance on good digital
effects isn’t enough—especially when the filmmakers seem confused about whether
to make their movie animated or live-action.
The two styles of filmmaking come with two entirely different sets of
responsibilities and emotional triggers.
The Wachowskis want it both ways with “Speed Racer” and don’t accomplish either. As it is, “Speed Racer” is a fairly confused work of technical trickery
masquerading as neo cinematic Pop Art.