Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski
We’ll talk more about the look of the movie later, because the cartoon’s fans will probably be more interested in knowing how the film handles Speed Racer’s introduction. The opening scenes showing Speed as a kid, looking up to his brother Rex and wanting to be a racer just like him, are very promising. After we’re filled in on the backstory, we cut to the present day where Speed is racing around the track following in his brother’s tire treads, and everything’s going fine until the film introduces an overly-complex plot involving the power-hungry president of Royalton Industries, gangsters and a number of “evil” racers who are set after Speed on the track. Few kids will be able to follow all of these various subplots, and there’s so much exposition between the scattered races that the movie tends to drag. The Wachowskis missed a great opportunity to recreate the frenetic pace of the cartoon’s dialogue that was such a large part of it being so memorable.
Rather, the movie takes things way too seriously, especially in the scenes between Emile Hirsch and Matthew Fox, both whom give stiff, lifeless performances that suck the energy out of the room whenever they’re on-screen. It’s like someone forgot to tell them that they’re supposed to be having fun and since they act like limp, dead fish, the viewer’s mind starts wandering. The reveal of Racer X’s identity is one of the few scenes between them that’s handled well.
The film’s one true unadulterated joy is Paulie Litt’s Spritle who steals the movie with his monkey companion Chim-Chim whenever they’re getting into trouble and adding some much needed comic relief. Christina Ricci is smokin’ hot as Trixie, and John Goodman is also fun as “Pops,” especially when he fights a ninja and spins him over his head like in the cartoon. Another nice surprise is seeing Richard “Shaft” Roundtree as a legendary racer involved in the corrupt racing circuit, but Roger Allam’s scenery-devouring performance as the film’s corporate baddie is often cringe-worthy. Otherwise, the movie tries too hard to be goofy and silly with lots of hammy, over-the-top acting that adds to the movie’s erratic and out of control tone.
Clearly, the reason most people will see this movie is for the fast-paced racing scenes featuring some of the same jaw-dropping car stunts the Wachowskis pulled off in “The Matrix Reloaded,” mixed with the cool gadgets from the cartoon. Surely, one can forgive the film’s lame writing and weak acting if these races were able to deliver, and each of the races does get more exciting as they get more dangerous. (The movie introduces an innovative way to spare the drivers a fiery death during the worst car wrecks.)
Where previous Wachowski films have excelled in their revolutionary computer-generated graphics, most of the CG in the races looks ugly and unfinished. When a movie like Pixar’s “Cars” can create realistic races within a CG environment while maintaining cartoon stylishness, it’s embarrassing that much of “Speed Racer” literally looks like model cars plopped in front of computer backgrounds, especially coming so soon after groundbreaking racing games like “GTA4” and “Mario Kart Wii.” By comparison, this looks like a ’90s racing video game that someone vomited on. There’s way too much bad green screen work across the board with the foreground characters not blending into the backgrounds. The Wachowskis try to recreate the pace of a cartoon by cutting between the racing action and announcers commenting on the race (mostly in bad accents), but it’s jarring and headache-inducing, especially when they start cutting in flashbacks to scenes we saw earlier in the movie… and all of that needlessly stretched out to over two hours makes it hard not to bear a grudge.
The Bottom Line: