The release of “Speed Racer” is something of a demographic mystery. Despite a PG rating, it’s clearly not a kid’s movie, and the convoluted plot will have children scratching their heads, laughing only when the hero’s monkey sidekick appears on the screen. Their parents will hate it, undoubtedly wanting to vomit about 10 minutes into the film as the whirlwind of brilliant colors and thumping bass overloads their senses. And fans of the original show will note that similarities to the movie are almost purely coincidental. Then again, how many die-hard fans of the original show are really out there?
So who is “Speed Racer” for? Two people: Larry and Andy Wachowski. The two co-directing brothers are known for pushing the envelope in both visual effects (“The Matrix”) and storytelling (“V for Vendetta”) and “Speed Racer” is an unapologetic outlet for them to try and crank the dial to 11 on both counts. They end up succeeding more in one way than the other.
As you might have seen from the seizure-inducing trailer, the way this film was shot is from another planet entirely. You’ve absolutely never seen anything like it. The world of “Speed Racer” is a brightly colored amalgam of downtown Tokyo and Dr. Seuss’s Whoville.
On a standard-size movie screen the rush of an intense 600 mph race down a roller coaster track is quite literally enough to take your breath away. I imagine that you might actually die attempting to watch this in an IMAX theater.
The Wachowskis have laid claim to the title of visual effects pioneers since showing a man dodging bullets nine years ago in “The Matrix.” With “Speed Racer” they’ve created something so new and revolutionary that experiencing it can be likened to audiences must have felt seeing Dorothy stepping into the Technicolor world of Oz. Every element of the film jumps off the screen, even though the film isn’t shot in 3-D. You’ll see colors you never even knew existed. Among other dazzling techniques, they’ve shot the film so that the background and the foreground are both in focus at the same time, creating a cartoon like effect that gives the film the “pop” factor you’ll notice throughout.
The storytelling is where “Speed Racer” starts to sputter. The plot is unnecessarily complex for a “children’s” movie. No six-year-old I know can tell me much about inflating stock prices or multinational corporate takeovers, but that doesn’t stop the Wachowskis from including them. And yes, much like “The Matrix” and “V for Vendetta,” “Speed Racer” is a not-so-subtle allegory about fighting the corporate machine.
Speed (Emile Hirsch, “Into the Wild”) is an up-and-coming race car driver from a long line of car fanatics. After his brother Rex Racer dies in an infamous crash and falls into disrepute, it’s up to Speed to restore his family’s tarnished legacy. With his father (John Goodman, “The Flintstones”), his mother (Susan Sarandon, “Enchanted”) and his quasi-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, “Penelope”) backing him up, Speed turns down a sponsorship contract with evil tycoon Royalton (a ham-tastic Roger Allam, “The Queen”) and soon finds himself with a bounty on his head. He’s aided in his fight by the mysterious Racer X (a wooden Matthew Fox, “Lost”), a man with a deep, dark secret you might figure out by saying his name out loud a few times.
One character has been left out of this laundry list: Speed’s younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt, “Jersey Girl”), who very well may be the most annoying and one-dimensional sidekick since Jar Jar Binks. Paired with a monkey named Chim-chim (because monkeys are always hilarious) he gives the kiddies something to laugh at, but also makes for some of the worst moments of the film – mainly because he consistently talks like he’s quoting catchphrases from a ’50s cereal commercial (“Holey moley!”) and oftentimes your instinct is to want to punch him rather than chuckle.
The film’s dialogue is downright laughable at times. Lines like “It’s the only thing I know how to do and I gotta do something!” and “It’s not about how you change racing, it’s about how racing changes you!” pepper the lulls in between auto-carnage and fight scenes and cause more eye rolls than inspiration. They also stretch the film about half an hour too long. Clocking in at two hours and fifteen minutes, the pulse-pounding synthetic colors and sounds make “Speed Racer” the most physically exhausting movie since “Grindhouse.”
So can awe-inducing visuals overpower a lacking storyline? In this case, yes – they’re simply that spectacular. The “Mario Kart”-on-acid races involving dueling, weaponized cars on spiraling tracks through mountains, deserts and metropolises are truly thrilling to watch, and that’s something that’s hard to say these days as zombie flicks and superhero movies roll off the assembly line like there’s some sort of quota to be met. It definitely won’t be for everyone, but for those who can stomach it, “Speed Racer” is a hell of a ride.
Rating: 3 and a half out of 5 stars
At Quality 16 and Showcase