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Speed Racer
Reviewed by Navin Vembar, © 2008

Format: Movie
By:   The Wachowski Brothers
Genre:   Live-Action Anime
Review Date:   May 12, 2008
Audience Rating:   PG-13
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

I actually wanted to see Speed Racer. The trailers made the film look like it was committed to ridiculousness of the highest order, which I can always get behind.

Given the fairly simple idea that your main character is the titular Speed Racer (Emile Hirsh), the movie Speed Racer should be entirely free of exposition and backstory. It’s about a driver in futuristic, physics-defying races based off a cartoon from the 1960s that saw a resurgence in the 90s due to MTV re-airings. Period. Full-stop. Show me some cars. But noooo. . .

Instead, the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix) manage to ruin the fairly decent race sequence that opens the movie with repeated, unnecessary cutaways to Speed Racer’s childhood as, entirely surprisingly, a kid who wants to race cars. Well, OK, we get some information about his older brother, Rex Racer. Great, but do we really need 25 minutes of intercutting during our first view of what should be a campy, brightly-colored cartoon race brought to life?

You see, this movie is meant to have gravitas. It’s supposed to be about the evils of corporatism and the bonds of family. After all, the core plot is about Royalton Industries wanting to take over the small, family-run Racer Motors. Royalton is part of a cabal of car manufacturers that fix races to benefit their stock prices. Blah, blah, blah, Speed, with the help of the "mysterious" Racer X (Lost’s Matthew Fox) has to win a few races to subvert the dominant paradigm, or whatever.

The Wachowskis seem to believe they’re saying something important enough to cut away from the exciting moments of the film. They’re not, but that’s a trap they’ve fallen into since The Matrix. (Their best film, Bound, is really the only one which avoids it.) The most enjoyable parts of Speed Racer are those that are entirely unhinged from reality, those that embrace the campiness.

Which, oddly enough, makes over-the-top, anime-inspired kung-fu scenes stand out in a movie about super-powered cars with guns attached to them. Heck, the theoretically climactic race of the movie is far less interesting than the middle race sequence, the cross-country rally Casa Cristo.

There are definitely moments to grab onto in the mess. The races, when we’re given a chance to stick with them, are fun at times. The opening sequence steals the concept of “ghosting” from driving video games to avoid the normal cinematic cliches that are used when a character is racing against the clock.

I came to the show for the crazy ridiculousness, and I did get some, what with all the airborne cars with saw blades and car-fu and the fun, interesting cartoon-crossed-with-live-action look of the thing. The bright, loud colors and lighting were fantastic, actually.

Plus, John Goodman as Pops Racer seems to be having fun and Susan Sarandon, Mom Racer, apparently can make some excellent PB&J because that’s the extent of what she has to do. The less said about Spritle and frigging Chim-Chim the goddamn chimpanzee the better.

But, really, I was more bored than I should have been and it was entirely the fault of the pacing and direction.

The car sequences were undercut by the back-and-forth to flashbacks and flashforwards, sometimes to scenes we saw less than 30 minutes ago, and the non-car sequences just went on far too long.

Also, the "reveal" at the end of the movie was presented as if, (1) it was actually a surprise to anyone with a six-year-old’s sense of storytelling and (2) it had any impact to the movie, at all. Mostly Speed Racer was two hours of me risking epileptic seizures for very little payoff.

RevStaff Writer Navin Vembar is actually your brother.

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