Movie Review: Speed Racer
By Matthew Huntley
May 28, 2008
It's hard to believe the Wachowski Brothers are the ones responsible for Speed Racer. The filmmaking duo behind Bound and The Matrix have, hitherto now, always maintained a constant, kinetic rhythm to their storytelling, but with Speed Racer, they reverse that logic. How could a movie with so much going on be this boring to watch? I'm not sure, but it is.
Like many people who will choose to ignore Speed Racer, I am not familiar with the 1960s cartoon series, which was originally a Japanese anime and later dubbed for American audiences. I'm willing to accept my reaction to this movie may be attributable to my lack of knowledge (and interest) in the genre from which it sprung, and I'm also not its target audience, but even so, I found little here worth watching.
The movie's most distinct quality, of course, is its look. Shot entirely against a green screen, every shot, set piece, special effect, and action sequence has been partly generated by a computer. The color scheme is bright, loud and saturated to sometimes uncomfortable degrees and everything looks artificial, even the humans. After a while, though, none of this mattered because the story is so uninspired and flat compared to the technical ambitions. Even with the pulsating visuals, I ended up positioning my left cheek on my fist about a quarter of the way through the picture. It remained there until the end credits.
It's not exactly clear where the movie takes a wrong turn. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is a young man obsessed with automobile racing. Even as a boy, he lived, breathed and dreamed about cars, wanting nothing more than to race like his older brother Rex (Scott Porter). The scenes with Rex all take place in flashback and we learn later on he left his family to protect them, after which he seemingly ended up in a fatal car accident.
As an adult, with Rex gone, Speed feels it's his duty to keep his family's racecar business afloat and restore dignity to the sport. He turns down a contract with the evil Royalton (Roger Allam), who's convinced racing is only about money and power. Royalton lets Speed in on the industry's dirty secrets of how some of the best-known drivers knew their races were fixed. Speed, with the help of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and fellow driver Taejo Togokhan (Rain), sets out to prove him wrong.
The movie is more or less a combination of incessant, redundant racing sequences, slapstick comedy and over-the-top characters. I know it may have been the movie's intention to appear and function like the cartoon, but that doesn't make it any more excusable when it's this dull. After seeing the movie, if you were to ask me to tell the racing scenes apart, I would be at a loss. It seemed like Speed's car, the Mach 5, performed the same twists, turns, back flips and dodging maneuvers over and over. In the end, all the racing scenes blurred together.
Not that the movie is a total loss. Some of the actors are a treat to watch, but strangely, not the one playing the titular hero. As Speed, Emile Hirsch seems oddly passionless, which comes as a surprise after his compelling work in Into the Wild. More fitting for their roles are John Goodman as Pops Racer, Susan Sarandon as Mom, and Christina Ricci as Trixie, Speed's girlfriend, who guides him on the tracks in her helicopter. I also liked Paulie Spitt as Spritle, Speed's younger brother, who's always getting into trouble with Chim Chim, his pet chimpanzee. With the exception of Hirsch, the actors all seem like they belong in their roles and really embody them. It's just a shame the movie doesn't supply them a more vital story.
Many will probably say this movie is awful, atrocious or horribly unbearable. They would be wrong. It is not a good movie, no, but it's not painful, either. The Wachowskis imbue it with enough spirit but not enough energy. It's simply not fun and mostly boring. I didn't walk away angry or offended, just kind of sleepy. Even during a Sunday afternoon screening, with many kids in the audience, the experience lacked the kind of stimulation and urgency for a family popcorn movie. I think the kids had a better time stomping their feet on the floor and running up and down the aisles than watching it, which was obviously meant for them with its brightness, goofy characters, and PG-level action.
Speed Racer means well, and I guess I liked its innocence and themes, but it fails to entertain on a rush-like level. The action scenes are interrupted by long, drawn out moments of wearisome dialogue, which resulted in too many dry spots. One exception is the scene where Mom Racer touchingly tells Speed how he makes her scared, excited, and indescribably proud, that his racing takes her breath away. This is a particularly well-acted scene by Susan Sarandon and I believed her every word, but ironically enough, all the feelings she described are what Speed Racer lacks.