Thursday, May 8, 2008

Go, Speed Racer

Speed Racer [PG]
Grade: A
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox
Director: Larry and Andy Wachowski

I mean this well: watching The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer is like taking a nostalgia trip back to 1982 for the otherworldly lavishness of Tron. It has that same extravagant visual pop, the same rocket-speed computer car races, fueled with 25 years worth of more advanced technology. The stunning candy-color animation resembles the pied wonderlands of fifties MGM musicals. It’s like someone handed Vincente Minnelli a Lite-Brite and a computer and told him to create a ripping summer action anime. Amazing is the only word.

The film is more than just an optical dessert. It’s a radical dismemberment of space and time, defying and re-developing rules of cinematic physics. Witness the dazzling Casa Cristo car race, a long and winding chase across desert, mountains, and iced peaks, with the best Bond-villain weaponry ever crammed under a hood. The perspective snaps from one image to another, one place to another, one time to another, one person to another. It constantly re-invents the screen without ever confusing. Or relenting.

It’s true, the film should prune about 20 minutes; should rely less on the chubby boy Spridel and his chimp for sporadically effective comic relief; should have a plot with fewer points, that amounts to more than a Keith Olbermann anti-corporate screed. The film’s simplehearted family story shouldn’t work, but it worked on me until it kind of did. These are kitschy roles, but the talented cast (Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon) never surrenders to being in “only a summer movie.” Speed Racer is not an actor’s film, but they never act like it isn’t.

Speed Racer resurrects the cult-classic cartoon, often credited as the first piece of visually striking Japanese anime to cross the Pacific. A baby-faced teen driving sensation, Speed Racer (Hirsch), rises quickly through the ranks of the World Racing League. These races do not take place on skid-marked, gray-asphalt ovals. They zoom through neon-trimmed roller-coaster courses, with cars spinning, leaping, and burning megabyte rubber.

As an up-and-comer, evil corporate interests surround the family and try to pry Speed away from his home-based racing team. One headcase of a CEO suffers through family pancakes to whisk Speed to his Willy Wonka automotive factory. Little does the innocent Speed know that he and a group of fixers control the sport to prop up stock prices. The type of fixers who feed their enemies to rainbow colored piranhas. The type of piranhas who enjoy being well-fed pets.

I’m sure there are critics ready to pummel it. Ready to claim it’s too much. Ready to don the uniforms of the Overkill Police, keeping the megaplexes safe for the next Judd Apatow movie with a no-sex-please-we’re-British visual style. As if the Wachowskis, those Matrix devils, have offended the cinematic gods by making their films visually revelatory. As if their hubris has awakened the volcano, and the lava is about to bury the village.

But what a volcano this is. Like Mother Nature’s ultimate show. Colorful, for sure. Explosive, too. Sometimes indiscriminate and destructive, but finally nourishing to the cinematic earth. At least as nourishing as Mike and Ikes can be.


Chuck said...

I want to like Speed Racer, I'm going in with an open attitude. Even if its a mess, I can more readily get behind batshit, one of kind messes than out every weekend sedate the masses messes.

K. Bowen said...

Idon't want to have to diagram that thing, Chuck. But I know what you're saying.

Evan Derrick said...

Bowen, I'm finally catching up with others' reviews now that I've written my own. Agree with you fully on you review, especially your detractions (too long, plot a bit too complex). I think the thing won me over so much that I was incapable of recognizing any fault in my own piece.

"Speed Racer is not an actor'sfilm, but they never act like it isn't."

Great observation, that. All of them, Goodman and Sarandon especially, sold the sweet family values for me.

I see you hail from N. Texas. I'm just up the way in Tulsa, cultural mecca of the midwest that it is.

Look forward to reading more of your stuff in the future.

Craig Kennedy said...

I'm making an exception to the "no review until I write my own rule" with you and Evan because you're kindered spirits on this movie and it makes me happy.

One thing to say for now: TRON! YES! I was thinking exactly the same thing. And in a good way. Tron blew my tiny little mind when I was a kid and Speed did a similar number on me. Nice comparison.

See, that's why I hate reading other reviews first - now I can't steal the Tron reference...

K. Bowen said...

The thing about Tron is .....

a) it was actually fairly well-reviewed at the time. If you look around the web, you can find positive reviews from Ebert and Kael. Obviously not for the genius of its story, but for the genius of its design.

b) it's had decent staying power. It's playing at a midnight Inwood screening in a few weeks. I will probably check it out.

It also has that child-like wonderment that we've talking about. That sense of being in another world.

Do the Tron reference, Craig. Great minds think alike.

K. Bowen said...


The thing about the acting is that, however you would describe the mood, the cast buys into it. I don't think you can say the same thing about the non-Downey cast of Iron Man, for example. I thought Howard and Paltrow seemed to be there for the check. I've seen each of them do much, much more.

I also think a number of the negatives evaporate when you consider the intended audience.

Pinko Punko said...

Tron doesn't hold up, but was still fun. It was a Netflix for me from last year. It still looks really good.

K. Bowen said...

Well, Tron was never about anything but the look and the childhood excitement of being in an elaborate new world created by that crazy new invention, the home computer and/or video game system. But in that regard, it was adventurous, and in some ways influential, in a way that a lot of films from that year that were likely better regarded are not and won't be.

Pinko Punko said...

I think Speed Racer is the film Sky Captain wanted to be. Different looks, but both totally committed to an aesthetic.

K. Bowen said...

That is not a bad comparison whatsoever, Pinko.

Pinko Punko said...

I liked Sky Captain, actually, but it really didn't work. Visually it had some verve. I think the technology wasn't quite there and they didn't have the advantage for going with a hyperstylized anime aesthetic, which I think is an easier pizazz. I was reminded by it from your mention of Gwyneth Paltrow. She has in fact done better in plastic movies- I was reminded that she was in one.

Thinking more about Speed Racer- I have to say I think it felt less stolid and conventional than any of the Pixar films I have seen. Speed Racer was really a family film that was not pitched to 5 year olds. Or what parents of 5-year olds think their kids want to watch not even remembering what being a kid was like.