Movie Review: Speed Racer (2008)

Director: The Wachowskis
Writer(s) The Wachowskis

Cast:
Emile Hirsch – Speed Racer
Christina Ricci – Trixie
John Goodman – Pops Racer
Susan Sarandon – Mom Racer
Matthew Fox – Racer X

Preamble:
There are some good ideas in Speed Racer. There are plenty of efforts mdae that — taken on their own — are very respectable for their attempts if not the execution. Unfortunately the Wachowskis seem to have forgotten some very basic elements of storytelling amidst all these attempts, and the results are a movie that’s mediocre at best.

At times the colors work perfectly
At times the colors work perfectly

Plot Points:
Speed Racer begins telling story of a young Speed Racer who’s never had any interests other than racing from the time he was a grade school student. With his big brother setting the example as a famous race car driver, he ends up following in his brother’s footsteps despite him leaving both racing and his family under lousy conditions. Determined to be great – but also racing directly against the memory of his deceased brother – he dominates the competition and is eventually offered a chance to race for Royalton Industries, the top company in racing headed by the creepy announcer from ‘V for Vendetta’. The smarmy sales pitch doesn’t win over Speed, and his refusal to race upsets the owner, who then chooses to try and kill him for his refusal. As a side-plot, Racer X (played by Fox) is busy crusading against the criminals who have ruined the game he loves.

The Meat:
It’s a pretty basic setup that presents an odd problem. While I often lament the lack of patient storytelling in modern movies, I’m not sure this plot needed two hours and 15 minutes to execute. It’s especially notable when the main character is so drab. The performance by Emile Hirsch as speed racer, is, well:
/Not campy
/Not completely serious
/Lacking in real weight
/Lacking humor for stretches
/Completely lacking in chemistry with his on-screen girlfriend.
/Laughably bad when he attempts menacing intensity


Hirsch’s Speed Racer exists in a strange, uninteresting, no-man’s land that mirrors the cg background and human actors in the entire movie. You’re never completely attached him, he’s simply a protagonist, not a hero. Is there something inherent in cg-laden movies that causes Phantom Menace-type problems? Like so many shallow video games, the “talky parts” just feel like cut scenes in between boss fights (or in this case races). Part of the problem in this comes from the aforementioned visuals. While it’s fine to dazzle with bright colors at key moments, there aren’t moments of convincing quiet to provide a real emotional build-up to the races. Everything feels to be going at the same speed. Normal conversations should not have existed in the same lane as the races. In fact they shouldn’t have even been on a freeway.

There are some great visuals here, there’s no doubt in that regard. Constant references to manga and anime storytelling devices are made, and quite a few are successful.

Characters make speeches while backed up by montages that illustrate their point.

This works better than a simple flashback
This works better than a simple flashback

Speed lines, that old staple of manga and anime, is transformed into a very well done live version where backgrounds transform in live action and give an interesting escalation to the action. It works although I’m not sure if it holds much interest to those who aren’t old-school anime fans. In this way it’s reminiscent of Ang Lee’s efforts to infuse comic book storytelling into his Hulk adaptation. It looked amazing to me, personally, but how many non-artists really cared?

Speed lines get a live action treatment
Speed lines get a live action treatment

In the end this doesn’t work as well as it should have, but there’s a certain level of respect deserved for a bold attempt and a nice integration of some very good cg. Essentially it IS a live-action anime, which is what a lot of us have wanted to see (imagining what Cameron’s adaptation of Angel Alita is going to be like, etc.). Now the question is ‘should we ever have been anxious to see this?’


Movie – 5/10
DVD – 8/10

‘Speed Racer’ Trailer:

Review by Steve Broome
sbroome at coalminds dot com

Bah!

After changing web hosts, I’m having problems with my blogs. They were backed up but aren’t appearing publicly for some reason. I’ll work on the issue and hopefully have the posts re-uploaded shortly, otherwise I’ll just reupload the backups.  

Until then, RIP Freddie Hubbard, the trumpet great who passed away today. Happy New Year’s y’all.