I’m not sure if I ever watched the original “Speed Racer” cartoon, but I feel like I have. Maybe it’s because that darn theme song can be so hard to get out of your head. Speed is one of those characters who has permanently engrained himself into pop culture for all time. Back in 2008, the Wachowskis brought this popular cartoon which is credited for bringing the world of anime into full focus onto the big screen in a live action version that is bursting at the seams with the most vibrant colors imaginable.
In short, “Speed Racer” is a visual splendor to behold, and also kind of an endurance test to sit through. At over two hours, this movie is simply way too long. I usually don’t complain about a movie’s length, but I can’t resist bitching about it here because I kept yawning in the second half and was checking my watch. When I check my watch during a movie, it is NOT a good sign.
“Speed Racer” starts off innocently enough as we see Young Speed (Nicholas Elia) daydreaming about someday being a great racecar driver like his brother Rex (Scott Porter). Speed comes from a family weaned on race cars and building them. His father Pops (the always dependable John Goodman) runs Rex’s race team along with Speed’s brother Sparky (Kick Gurry) until Rex ends up walking out on the family and their cars. No real reason is giving by Rex to his dad, but he warns Young Speed not to believe all the bad things people are going to be saying about him. Soon enough, Rex is slammed with a bad reputation which is not of his own doing, and he later perishes in a tragic car crash which haunts the family to the point where Pops won’t go into his garage to do any mechanic work.
Fast forward to several years later, and we see Speed all grown up (and played by Emile Hirsch), and he is as a good a racer as Rex. He amazes everyone with his skills on the track to the delight of his fans and ever-loving family. Pops has even come back into working on cars again along with Sparky, and Speed also has a great mother in Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) who I can’t help but say is quite sexy. He also has a loyal girlfriend in Trixie (Christina Ricci) who flies her pink helicopter in the most alluring miniskirts ever to make their way into a PG-rated movie. And there is also his annoying younger brother (is there any other kind?) Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his chimp friend Chim Chim. Still, he could not have asked for a better family.
Then into the picture comes Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), a spiffy CEO of one the world’s largest auto industries who offers Speed a chance to sign up with him to represent his corporation. Royalton is basically a man with the mind of a used car salesman (and I have dealt with many of them over the years) with an extravagant attire. This man wants to seduce Speed into a world where he can have everything he could ever possibly want, but Speed would rather stick with his family as he finds these corporations a little too frightening to deal with. This ends up bringing out the devil in Royalton as he gives Speed lessons in how the world really works, and he is determined to see Speed will never win a race from here on out. The movie then becomes a journey to showing how one racecar driver can change the world for the better, and can also succeed in blowing apart the corrupt corporations which threaten to destroy the world of racing.
The movie is deliberately campy, and that’s fine. I imagine the show was too. The beginning was fun as it introduced us to the world of Speed Racer and the people who inhabit it. There is an innocence which proved to be quite infectious as we see Speed daydreaming about the life he wants to lead. Who hasn’t had moments like that? Had the movie contained more of this innocent feel, then I imagine I would have liked it a lot more. There’s nothing wrong with a good throwback to the past, and it always brings back good memories which are always welcome.
But towards the last half, I found myself really getting restless. Just when you think “Speed Racer” has reached its climax, there is more and everything feels dragged out as a result. Maybe it’s because we all know how the story will end, and the depressing part is there is no excitement in it. The movie has heart, but not enough to fully envelop us into its gloriously colorful world. Because the Wachowskis are working with CGI and have practically shot just about every frame in front of a blue screen, we know everything is precise in movement and direction. This is nothing you can really improvise around, and it makes the race scenes all the more disappointing because there is no real thrill in them. In fact, there is no friction which you really need in any cinematic car chase to make it effective. By the end, I was ready for it to be over. It didn’t matter how brilliant the visuals were. They don’t mean anything without soul.
This was the first movie the Wachowskis directed since the “The Matrix Revolutions.” They still have a knack for groundbreaking visual effects, and of following that one character who is “the one.” If it’s not Neo, then it’s Speed himself. They do surround this film with good actors like John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci and Emile Hirsch who was coming off a plethora of praise for his work in “Into the Wild” at the time. But the story and the characters are not enough here like they were in “The Matrix.” Maybe it’s because we have seen this story so many times before; the one man on a mission to stop those who control everything and blind us to the truth of the world we live in.
With “The Matrix,” that story was revolutionary and groundbreaking. But with “Speed Racer,” there is nothing revolutionary except the visual spectrum of what’s on display, and it doesn’t change the fact that the story about a man going against the corporate world is old, old, old. There is also the sheer irony of the corporate world funding a movie where the independent people go against the corporations to win the day.
I didn’t hate “Speed Racer.” There is a lot to admire about it. It’s not really an actor’s movie, but then again, these movies rarely are. I guess I’m sad this movie, despite the amount of money put into it, didn’t excite me the way I hoped it would. And I am sick of being forgiving to movies like these. The Wachowskis may forever be imprisoned by the success of “The Matrix” movies, but they are better filmmakers and storytellers than this.
* * out of * * * *