The Good: Cinematography
The Bad: Light on character development, Uninspired acting, Very basic plot, Predictable
The Basics: In their latest outing, the Wachowski Brothers make a lackluster live-action version of Speed Racer, which ultimately stands as a standard race movie.
With all of the websites devoted to actors, recording artists, and celebrities from the world of fashion, it occurs to me that there are no real services that keep score on directors. I'm thinking something like Consumer Reports for directors, a scorecard kept like a politician's voting record for interested parties. I mean, most of us know when our favorite actors and actresses appear in a dud (fans of Ben Affleck and/or Jennifer Lopez pretty universally admit that Gigli was a bust for both) but fans tend to look at the overall career of those they are most interested in favorably. Perhaps we are similarly blinded by the record of our favorite directors. Objectively, though, the Wachowski Brothers are perhaps the most successful "hit or miss" directors. Their scorecard of films I've seen of theirs puts them at a complete draw: 3 to 3.
Their genius can almost go undisputed when considering Bound, The Matrix, and V For Vendetta. But then there are the two sequels to The Matrix, which were mediocre and just plain horrible. With Speed Racer, the latest endeavor by the brothers Wachowski, the scorecard equals out. This film, preoccupied with looking good, is of very little substance and less interest.
Speed, one of the two surviving sons of Mom and Pops Racer, excels at exactly one thing: racing. From a very young age, he displayed an ability to drive fast and maneuver at high speeds. This has led him to a life of car racing that is competitive, dangerous and just enough to get a girl to have an interest in him. The races Speed participates in, and the dream race he longs to compete in - the Crucible -, are controlled by corporate moguls and when arguably the most prominent and powerful one, Royalton, wants Speed to throw a race, Speed Racer is caught in something of a moral dilemma.
Despite his parents' business failing, Speed takes a moral stand and refuses to throw a race. As a result, Royalton and his forces engage in a determined effort to insure that Speed Racer never completes another race. Pops upgrades the Mach 5, Speed appeals to the sportsman's nature in his rival, Racer X, and his girlfriend Trixie encourages him to fight the powers that be and race in the Crucible.
Speed Racer is based upon an animated series by the same name, but as one not fluent in the series - I watched it when I was a child, but have no specific memories of it - the film is evaluated as it is. And, sadly, there's not much to Speed Racer. Despite the production elements, Speed Racer is essentially a race movie, a sports story. This is all about a fast-driving, lives on the edge guy who is obsessed with winning. Speed Racer has a sense of honor; he and Racer X share a love of the pure race and the sense of outrage over the idea of throwing a race. They, despite being rivals on the track, respect one another's abilities and the thrill of the sport. This is a sport's story.
What separates it from virtual every other sports story on screen is the Wachowski Brothers' sensibility toward authority and the look. Like V For Vendetta and The Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers include in Speed Racer a strong sense that authority figures are corrupt and are out to alter the reality by which freedom-loving people live their lives. As a result, Speed and his family are characterized with a purity that Royalton and his peers entirely lack. I dig the idea of resisting authority and rejecting the established paradigms, but in this context, the Wachowski Brothers simply reinforce that paradigm. Sports movies often include a corrupt adversary and the simple obstacle they create.
What Speed Racer has is a lush animated look to the races. The colors are neon and fantastic, lending an unreal quality to the races that is very much a Wachowski conceit. They create a reality unlike the one we live in and they enhance the mood by pushing the boundaries of physics in that reality. Cars fly and leap, take awkward, three dimensional curves as unreal speeds. There are flashes of color and light that lend the film a rather psychedelic quality. I'm not recommending watching the film stoned or high or anything, but the look certainly lends itself to the same type art as what one finds in a headshop. Just at an incredible speed!
But largely, Speed Racer is a very typical sports/race movie. As such, there are repetitive, insufferable fast-paced race scenes that one gets tired of in the first viewing, much less subsequent ones. The races have an animated quality to them as the Wachowski brothers present an altered reality where the physics of the world only loosely apply. There are the typical Bound-inspired, made-famous-by-The Matrix slow motion rotational shots that are the Wachowski Brothers' standards. But at the end of the film, it's just a race film.
As a result, character is by no means the pinnacle of the movie. Speed is very much the generic hero, just like Trixie is the archetypal girlfriend character and Pops is the mentor. Trixie has no real motivation in Speed Racer save to love Speed and support him in his endeavor. Pops and Mom support Speed and they provide a generic humanizing base for Speed to have a framework. Even Racer X is a generic adversary who turns into a reluctant ally when the plot turns on it. Royalton is largely an over-the-top archetype, with the most predictable place as tempter and villain in the film.
The point here is that in the attempt to make a film based on Speed Racer led the Wachowski Brothers to employ virtually every conceit of the sports story film and the result is an almost complete gutting of genuine character. Speed Racer is a character who lacks any fear of death while driving at superhuman speeds, but he is also emotionally distant, but no more interesting. There is nothing compelling about his character because at this point we expect the sports hero to be great on the field, but something less or different in the real world.
Speed Racer is played by Emilie Hirsch, who plays him with a tight-jawed, determined stare that has a very Anime quality to it and that is the essence of virtually every parody of Speed Racer ever created. Hirsch has the look, the bearing of an actor attempting to play a sports star and instead of intense, he comes across too frequently as distant and detached. More than in any other film in recent memory, Hirsch seems like an actor who is in front of a blue screen and acts that way. He often seems detached from his surroundings in a way that makes it very difficult to watch him. When the protagonist seems detached, it does not bode well for the film.
The usually-wonderful Christina Ricci appears to have been cast only to bug her eyes out even more, an effect that is utterly freakish in this context. Also failing to capitalize on their talent is Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, who play Mom and Pops. Neither one leaps onto the screen with any sense of presence. Instead, if one were to think of what one would expect of the most generic possible supportive mother and father, this is how Sarandon and Goodman were acting. Neither one gives anything we have not seen from them before, though Goodman is particularly . . . generic in an outgoing way. Having seen him perform brilliantly in The Big Lebowski and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and, come to think of it, The West Wing, his cookie-cutter father role here is just a let down.
Indeed, the only actor to do anything remotely interesting is Matthew Fox, who plays Racer X. Fox portrays Racer X as a dramatically different character than Jack on Lost or his older-brother character from Party Of Five. The fact that he has more range than just the tortured, moody thirtysomething is refreshing but he is quite underused in the role as well.
On DVD, Speed Racer is presented with remarkably little fanfare. There are only two featurettes for the standard DVD release: a tour of the set and one on the World Racing League. The Wachowski Brothers did not, apparently, try to explain the movie with a commentary track and if there were deleted scenes, they are not on this!
In short, Speed Racer does not pop, even with some of the Wachowski Brothers' efforts. They are the efforts we have seen before and here they are not nearly as interesting as part of an otherwise generic sports/racing movie. Truth be told, if one saw Iron Man (reviewed here!) and they had the extended preview for Speed Racer, they have essentially seen the film. And I ought to have figured I would not be thrilled by the movie from that. You need not make the same mistake.
For other works with Susan Sarandon, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Cradle Will Rock
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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