Tuesday, May 20, 2008


The Wachowski Brothers have lost their minds. Or maybe, if filmmaking is at its best reductive, they are more clever than I think. Perhaps making intelligent films was their only means to get to something like Speed Racer, that is devoid of any complexity unless you try to untangle the hundreds of people working on the visual effects. If expecting more from Andy and Larry Wachowski is a crime, then throw me in jail and let me think about what I have done. I certainly don't see the Wachowski's as autuers (they pretty much sunk that ship with The Matrix Revulsions, I mean Revolutions), but there was a time, around 1999, when they were like Gen X sons of God. And for good reason. They had made a smart film that seemed to touch on our adulthood cynicism and our need for some kind of optimism. If that wasn't enough, The Marix was undeniably creative and cool.

Those days seem to be over. The Speed Racer in question is already an adaptation of an adaptation with plenty of material available for rehashing. Now, I'm no fan of the original anime, Japanese or American, so I'm not even going to go there. What Speed Racer attempts to do for the fans is provide some nostalgia with a mod 60s sci-fi look while also bringing something new to the franchise with a live action rework bolstered by a load of impressive special effects. Speed Racer uses visuals as Fox News uses banners, with information sliding from left to right, right to left, bottom to top, and top to bottom. The car races are meant to be the visual show-stoppers, and while they have a great look to them, the candy colored streaks spin and fly so fast it would be easy to confuse portions of the car races for trippy light shows. The screen shots look much better because you actually get a chance to look at the amazing detail; in the film it all flies by way too fast.

The cast saves this film from the pits of eye-candy doldrums. John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Emile Hirsch are actually quite good as their respective characters. But it is Christina Ricci as Trixie who seems right at home playing a sparkling caricature. Overall the huge cast is interesting with many familiar faces making appearances. I was also keen on seeing how the world's favorite Korean pop star would make out in his first English language film. Rain's part as Taejo Togokhan is pretty one-dimensional and relatively small, but his English seemed natural as a non-native speaker and he definitely had the best "wooooo!" in the winner's circle.

Because of the visual pizazz, it might be easy to miss or overlook how flat the story is. The film was either aimed at a very young audience or it was totally unwilling to give viewers any benefit of the doubt. Reviewing why the Grand Prix was so important to Speed or spelling out "the truth" about Racer X through flashbacks just seemed unnecessarily redundant, not to mention how banal and predictable every single development in the story is. I couldn't help thinking how much my six-year-old nephew would love Speed Racer. And I'm sure there are many scenes that both he and I would laugh at together, but there would be even more scenes that he would roar at while I would be wishing we were watching High School Musical for the millionth time. Speed Racer is the perfect example of just how pedestrian a flashy summer movie can be.

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