Thursday, May 15, 2008

Speed Racer: Spinning its wheels, nowhere to go

Speed Racer (2008) • View trailer for Speed Racer
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for cartoon action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.15.08
Buy DVD: Speed Racer • Buy Blu-Ray: Speed Racer [Blu-ray]

This isn't a movie; it's a pinball machine.

Same garish colors. Same cacophonous sound effects. Same mindlessly repetitive action.

Utterly soulless.
The family that races also embraces: As Speed (Emile Hirsch) brings his
thundering Mach 5 home after a successful test run, he's greeted by adoring
girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), his parents (Susan Sarandon and John
Goodman) and loyal mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry).

Even at a time when Hollywood has embraced dozens of superhero movie projects, the notion of turning a 1960s cartoon series into a live-action film seems quite daft ... particularly when the show in question didn't have that much to recommend it in the first place.

Larry and Andy Wachowski certainly tackled this problem head-on, even if their efforts are misguided. Speed Racer is both a throwback and a wholly fabricated, computer-enhanced effort to make a live-action cartoon. As with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and 300, only the human performers (I refuse to ennoble their efforts by calling them "actors") are real; all the backgrounds, settings, gadgets and vehicles are CGI constructs.

But whereas the filmmakers behind Sky Captain and 300 put serious effort into creating worlds that we'd find similar to our actual workaday universe, this new "Speed Racer" deliberately mimics the vibrantly op art cartoon environment of Mach Go Go Go, as the TV show was known in native Japan.

Not a terribly lofty goal, when we consider how limiting that animation was, all those years ago.

The writing wasn't much better, and the Wachowski brothers' script is no improvement.

OK, fine; in theory, nothing is wrong with making a feature-length cartoon, even one populated by live human characters. But I can't figure out this film's target audience. It's too contrived, juvenile and boring for anybody over the age of, say, 8 ... but, at 135 mind-numbing minutes, it's too damn long for the small fry who'd identify most with this cast's youngest character, Spritle, who comes complete with a chimpanzee sidekick. (Yep, this is that kind of movie.)

Based on the behavior observed during last week's Sacramento preview screening, the youngest viewers were quite restless before we even hit the halfway point ... which was a good half-hour after I felt my brain cells shriveling from lack of stimulation.

The saga of Speed Racer takes place at some vague point in our future, where professional racing has embraced video game-style courses, tricked-up cars and engines capable of blasting along at a blurring 400 miles per hour. NASCAR fans would love it: Racing has become a big deal ... bigger even than World Cup soccer.

Speed (Emile Hirsch) has come of age in a household devoted to the racing biz and dominated by his father, Pops Racer (John Goodman), genius engineer and head of his family's own racecar design company.

Speed is a natural behind the wheel, and his racetrack successes have been noticed by the sport's movers and shakers.

But despite his aggressive, fearless grace behind the wheel, Speed is haunted by the memory of the older brother he idolized: Rex, who left his family under a cloud years earlier, and who died in a racing accident after first having tarnished his own reputation, thanks to rumors of unsportsmanlike conduct.

Having nonetheless established his own rep, Speed is courted by the unctuous head of Royalton Industries, E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam, properly sinister), who wants the kid racing for him. Sharing Pops' mistrust of corporations that believe themselves above fair play and the law, Speed declines ... and suddenly finds that he's been blackballed by behind-the-scenes thuggery.

Worse yet, Royalton has hit the Racer family with all sorts of nasty legal injunctions.

Ah, but all is not lost. Speed's integrity is observed by Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann), the World Racing League's anti-corruption agent, and his mysterious sidekick, the masked Racer X (Matthew Fox, of TV's Lost).

With their help, Speed is encouraged to enter the race that claimed his brother's life — a death-defying, cross-country rally — and, it's hoped, get the goods to expose Royalton.

Or something like that.

Additional plot machinations involve Royalton's efforts to manipulate two competing families on the WRL circuit: Musha Motors and Togokahn Motors. Frankly, though, this element of the storyline is handled so clumsily that it's difficult to determine who's double-crossing whom.

It's far easier to recognize the plot's broadest stroke — Speed needs to win (duh!) — and the hilariously over-amped villains, some borrowed from the original cartoon series: Snake Oiler, Cruncher Block, the Gray Ghost, Prince Kabala and the Flying Foxes Freight Team.

These baddies are just as flamboyant as their tricked-up racecars, which include all sorts of hidden gadgets designed solely to eliminate rivals by any means necessary. James Bond's Aston Martin has nothing on these gimmick-laden rides.

But — and here's the major problem — it's impossible to care.

Because all these cars routinely defy logic, gravity and physics, every fender-bending smash or fuel-injected assault is meaningless. Speed survives this or that attack only because the script demands that he do so; Snake Oiler remains an ongoing threat only because he pops up again on page 2,537.

On top of which, the presentation of this racing action is such a deliberately animated blur that we usually can't determine who's doing what to whom. It's the equivalent of staging a martial-arts fight in a darkened room; how can we be impressed by the physicality on display, if we can't see it?

Finally, since this is a PG-rated film, the storyline takes pains to reveal that no matter how catastrophic the clashes or crashes, these drivers aren't in any danger; if their vehicle self-destructs, the driver bounces away safely in an egg-shaped cocoon that seems to be made of Jell-O bubbles.

Even the cars are replaceable, since the script takes pains to reveal that a new one can be built from the ground up in a mere 36 hours.

Where, then, is the suspense?


The Wachowskis use up all their visual tricks in the first of this film's three big racing sequences, and things get pretty dull from that point onward.

The so-called "acting" is a mixed bag. Allam and Goodman ham it up with relish (and mustard), and Christina Ricci is entertaining as Speed's feisty, resourceful and eternally loyal girlfriend, Trixie. But Susan Sarandon is woefully out of place as Mom Racer, and the eternally tight-lipped Fox seems to be trying to match the laughable stoicism of Keanu Reeves, who made the Wachowskis so much money with their similarly overblown Matrix series.

Hirsch brings nothing to the party. Near as I can tell, he was hired because when he dons Speed's signature white helmet, Hirsch's button nose and pouty little mouth make him a dead ringer for his animé antecedent.

Paulie Litt is absolutely insufferable as Spritle, broadly overplaying all his scenes as if he were part of the green slime brigade on a Nickelodeon stage show.

Australian actor Kick Gurry gets some amusing moments as Sparky, Racer Motors' indispensable gearhead, while Richard Roundtree pops up as a legendary WRL racer who might have helped fix a long-ago Grand Prix race.

We never get a final answer to that question, just as we never get true closure on Rex Racer's suspicious death, all those years ago ... although the "big secret" concerning that accident is blindingly obvious. Behavior and motivations are as daft and badly handled as all the clumsily vague racing sequences.

Worse yet, the final scenes of this film are set up for a sequel, a notion that makes me want to scream for mercy. Since the successive Matrix entries were a grotesque example of ever-diminishing returns, I can't imagine how much worse a Speed Racer 2 would be, given how low the bar is this first time.

All the money spent on this high-octane nonsense, and it's not even as memorable as an average 30-minute installment — less commercials — of the original TV cartoon series.


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