All I know about Speed Racer I learned as a kid, when I watched episodes of the proto-anime between spoonfuls of Cocoa Puffs. There wasn’t much to it — there was a car, a monkey, a bad guy, and once I had my sugar rush I was outta there, its theme song lodged in a tiny corner of my mind. Some 40 years later I wouldn’t have imagined it as a potential new franchise for the makers of The Matrix (1999) to put on the road, but then again I was the guy who said today’s savvy, Wii-playing kids would never, ever go for Alvin and the Chipmunks.
The Speed Racer invite for the press screening said that children over seven would be welcome to attend. Given previews that promised candy-colored joyrides on green-screened Hot Wheels tracks, I thought it should be mandatory to bring one. The goofiest thing about this perplexing enterprise is that it’s only sort of for the over-sevens; the boring parts (and there are a lot of boring parts) are for the 40-year-olds lugging their over-sevens into the theater for this week’s cinematic adrenaline rush. There are two movies going on here, neither with crossover appeal.
This was not the film the Wachowski Brothers needed to rebound with after the embarrassment of the Matrix sequels (2003). They needed to go back to something smaller, more intimate, maybe with Gina Gershon again playing a lesbian (it’s just a thought), as in their debut feature, Bound (1996). V for Vendetta (2006), which they pulled the strings on, was a mess of totalitarian clichÃ©s and good intentions. So is this one, when it forgets to be a PG movie for the family, which is often enough.
That the family trade was not going to get the Wachowskis’ undivided attention was also apparent from the invite, which revealed a running time of 135 minutes. (“Just two hours if you leave right when the closing credits begin,” said the press rep, trying to be helpful.) If I were planning a Speed Racer movie, it would run 90 minutes, tops — there’s no subtext to explore. What the brothers have done is build it in, laboriously, tediously. The effort gives one-dimensional cartoon characters maybe a quarter-dimension more.
Emile Hirsch, yet another promising young talent fast-tracked for franchises and action figures (can’t they hold out a little longer?), plays Speed. The part consists entirely of being determined but pleasant while being green-screened and CGI’d into various made-up vehicles. He has a hot but chaste girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci, who has held out long enough to earn grown-up paydays), and true-blue parents, played with warmth and stolidity by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, troopers who have built up sufficient gravitas to register as human against shifting multicolored backgrounds. Everything is pretty much hunky-dory with Speed and his poor but honest racing family, except for the long shadow cast by the mysterious death of his brother, Rex. The machinations of the tycoon Royalton (Roger Allam), who demands that Speed race for him, is the other monkey wrench, and as you have already guessed the two are related.
We hear a lot about the wonder and majesty of racing. Confession: While I like a good car chase in a movie, car racing as a subject doesn’t get my engine racing. I can’t think of a really satisfying feature film about racers, and this one is too eccentric to qualify. The Wachowskis get a citizenship medal for not killing off any drivers in the course of the story; when the cars explode, the occupants are instantly encased in bouncing foam bubbles and sent packing. [The vehicles don’t run on gas, either. It’s a fantasy.] But they go straight to movie jail for not making the races believable in the slightest — the one off-track scramble is the only one to set the spine tingling a little. It’s not the Day-Glo tones (an elaboration on the primary-colors scheme of 1990’s Dick Tracy) or the digitization that’s at fault but the relentless need to hype everything into absurdity. With nothing at stake as one keyed-in car after another barrels unbelievably across the screen the speeches and slogans about the glory of competition carry no weight, even when Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, shows up to deliver them. Speed Racer looks like a live-action Cars (2006), but the Pixar movie is more credible.
In a counter-intuitive decision, Chim-Chim the chimp is played by a real monkey. I guess that makes sense given the participation of live actors; the notion of a chimp as an actual flesh-and-blood companion in a race is so cartoonish, however, that a CG chimp would keep it in the realm of fantasy. As caricatured are the speeches given by bad guy Royalton, the personification of an engulf-and-devour capitalism that has managed to fix the biggest race of all, the Grand Prix, for generations. The Morpheus character in this story, the mysterious Racer X (played in skeleton-clinging leather by Matthew Fox), keeps tabs on Royalton while acting as a guiding conscience for Speed, who has a hunch about his true identity.
These, folks, are the boring parts, one that only arthouse aficionados who have wandered in by accident will have any fun with, given the casting of semi-familiar faces like Moritz Bleibtreu and Benno Furmann in roles (the film was shot largely on German soundstages.) Every time Royalton purses his lips to let fly another line promulgating the dark satanic rights of corporations, I can hear conservatives muttering, “Now I know why Sarandon’s in this picture.” I get the overcomplicated thing the Wachowskis, who let all that philosophy mumbo-jumbo in the wake of their big success go to their heads, are doing: The thrill rides are for the kids, the rest is for adults who were kids when the concept is new, who have fallen into cynicism over our hopelessly rigged world and need to be reminded that the impossible is still possible and the pure-hearted can prevail. Not to contribute to the Royaltonian skepticism, but audiences already dissatisfied with the fake races will surely nap during these sequences, and pronounce Speed Racer hell on wheels.
Reviewing a movie like Iron Man a week after it’s opened is pointless. The high-fiving critics have done their job to market it; Marvel and Paramount have their $100 million in the bank; the geeks are as usual semi-satisfied (“one of the better superhero pictures this month”); and the kids are geared up for Speed Racer. You can only deconstruct the experience, which I will do in ten points:
1. Was that a cross-eyed Ben Kingsley parodying his portrayal of Gandhi in the Love Guru trailer that precedes the film? Is nothing sacred? (And boy, does that look like crap.)
2. What does a slimmed-down Jon Favreau have against Vanity Fair? Leslie Bibb’s bimbotic journo is the worst portrayal of the fourth estate in some time.
3. Movie music is in sad shape. The score for this one is just an endless ominous thrumming, which does nothing to shape what emotion there is. $150 million and they couldn’t afford something else, or is it just that these movies take so long to cook up in the computer there’s no time for anything more lustrous or pulse-quickening?
4. Waterboarding is only bad when it happens to white guys in movies. See also The Bourne Ultimatum.
5. Robert Downey Jr. stands so far outside of this picture he’s practically in the next theater. It’s an effective strategy to keep everyone laughing while holding any residual disdain for this kind of summer sausage movie at bay. But now that he is Iron Man, he really has to be Iron Man in the next one, no fooling around. I’m not sure how that will work: the best portrayals in these types of pictures (Christopher Reeve as Superman, Sean Connery and Daniel Craig as James Bond) are completely embedded. I don’t begrudge his grabbing the brass ring, Johnny Depp style, but I’m not seeing a serious commitment here.
6. Ex-Swinger Favreau, whose robot-filled Zathura was low-key to the point of coma, does have a deft touch with actors. The best funny-alarming scene in the film is when Gwyneth Paltrow is trying to remove Downey’s faltering chest gizmo. Hire Oscar-kissed actors to play these parts and you get more mileage out of them than usual. But Terrence Howard deserves something more than stock.
7. Jeff Bridges and Blythe Danner starred in Hearts of the West 33 years ago. Now he’s putting the moves on her daughter before trying to kill her. That’s creepy.
8. That “bzzz” cell-phone thing that Bridges has, to semi-paralyze his victims? That I like. I want one of those to zap audience members who are texting during the show.
9. The final post-credits bit introduces Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., who is trying to get Iron Man on his team. Apparently the same thing happens in the upcoming royale-with-cheese Incredible Hulk movie (and boy, does that look like crap). With Marvel producing its own films, it’ll be recombining the product lines like so much DNA, spinning them off in endless variations. They threaten to crank ‘em out till Apple Martin is old enough for Jeff Bridges to hit on.
10. All told, one of the better superhero pictures this month. But I liked it better when it was called RoboCop (1987) and had a truly grown-up sensibility, not a mock one.
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