Here’s why certain men of a certain age are huge fans of Speed Racer.
The 1960s Japanese cartoon show started airing on American television (in an English-dubbed version) in the 1970s. Hackneyed plots and crude animation aside, its ongoing premise, tied to a series of auto races, provided harder-edged action sequences than anything offered by American cartoons at the time.
Larry and Andy Wachowski grew up watching it, and now they’ve adapted it into a live-action movie. The brothers (they still bill themselves as The Wachowski Brothers, even though Larry is now officially a woman) clearly wanted to make their characters into three-dimensional people while staying true to the TV show’s action-oriented roots. The winding down of The Matrix series showed the brothers had been reading too much Baudrillard and Cornel West, and a popcorn picture such as this would seem like a chance to return to their strengths. Sadly, they fail on all fronts.
Emile Hirsch plays the title character, a race-car driver whose operation is staffed mostly by family members. When he rejects the offer from a corporate mogul (Roger Allam, channeling Orson Welles, and not to good effect) to buy the garage, he finds out just how corrupt the racing circuit is. The only way he can break the power of these large corporations is to win the Grand Prix.
Much of the movie’s negative reviews have focused on the look of the picture. The Wachowskis do get it wrong, though not necessarily because they have the wrong idea. Making a live-action film as cartoon-like as possible is a defensible way to adapt a cartoon. They create a world of candy-colored unreality, and if you ignore the fact that it looks like the latest installment of the Spy Kids series, it’s not unenjoyable.
The real problem with the movie is the storytelling. The opening race sequence is so loaded down with flashbacks (including some needlessly confusing flashbacks to a different auto race) that the whole section of the film collapses. The Racer family’s troubled past comes to us in jumbled fragments, and as a result the whole thing is unmoving despite all the effort.
The gravity-defying race scenes, which take place on courses that look more like roller-coaster tracks, are stale and uninventive, which is really bewildering given that an extended car chase was the highlight of The Matrix Reloaded. The only action sequence that clicks is the martial-arts fight between the mysterious Racer X (an appropriately inexpressive Matthew Fox) and a ninja assassin in a hotel room. The Wachowskis also turn out to have no talent for comedy – the clumsy attempts at it will only make you yearn for Talladega Nights.
If you can stand one more unflattering comparison, simply look across the multiplex to Iron Man, an imperfect but much more enjoyable film that emphasizes characters and story elements above special effects. The Wachowskis try to do the same thing, but they’re too distracted by shiny cars to make it happen.
Starring Emile Hirsch. Written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, based on Tatsuo Yoshida’s TV series. Rated PG