Sunday, May 18, 2008

"Speed Racer" movie review by Ben Kenber

I’m not sure I watched the original “Speed Racer” cartoon or not, but I can’t help but feel like I have. Maybe it’s because that darn theme song can be so hard to get out of your head. If you are not aware of the show (and most everyone is), you probably hear the “Speed Racer” mentioned in every other sentence. It’s one of those characters that has permanently engrained itself into pop culture for all time. Now the Wachowski Brothers have brought this popular cartoon that is credited for bringing the world of anime into full focus onto the big screen in a live action version that is bursting at the seams with the most vibrant colors imaginable. In short, “Speed Racer” is a visual splendor to behold, and also kind of an endurance to sit through. At over 2 hours, this movie is way too long. I usually don’t complain about the length of a movie, but I can’t resist bitching about it here because I kept yawning in the 2nd half and checking my watch. When I check my watch during a movie, then that is NOT a good sign.

“Speed Racer” starts off innocently enough as we see Young Speed (Nicholas Elia) daydreaming about someday being a great racecar driver like his brother Rex (Scott Porter). Speed comes from a family weaned on race cars and building them. His father Pops (the always dependable John Goodman) runs Rex’s race team along with Speed’s brother Sparky (Kick Gurry), until Rex ends up walking out on the family and their cars. No real reason is giving by Rex to his dad, but he warns Young Speed to not believe all the bad things that people are going to end up saying about him. Soon enough, Rex is slammed with a bad reputation that is not really of his own doing, and he later perishes in a tragic car crash which haunts the family to the point where Pops won’t go into his garage to do any mechanic work.

Fast forward several years later, and we see Speed all grown up and as a good a racer as his brother Rex. Speed amazes everyone with his skills on the track to the delight of his fans and his ever loving family. Pops has come back into working on cars again along with Sparky, and Speed also has a great mother in Susan Sarandon who I can’t help but say is quite a sexy mom. She threatens to bring out the Benjamin Braddock in me… Anyway, back to the movie. Speed also has a loyal girlfriend in Trixie (Christina Ricci, almost as sexy as she was in “Black Snake Moan”) who flies her pink helicopter in the most alluring miniskirts ever to make their way into a PG-rated movie. And there is also Speed’s annoying younger brother (is there any other kind?) Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his chimp friend Chim Chim. Speed could not have asked for a better family.

Then into the picture comes Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), a spiffy CEO of one the largest auto industries in the world who offers Speed a chance to sign up with him to represent his corporation. Royalton is basically a man with the mind of a used car salesman (I’ve been dealing with a lot of these lately) with an extravagant attire. This man wants to seduce Speed into a world where he can have everything he could ever possibly want, but Speed would rather stick with his family as he finds these corporations a little too scary to deal with. This ends up bringing out the devil in Royalton as he gives Speed lessons in how the world really works, and how he will never win a race from now on. The movie then becomes a journey to showing that one racecar driver can change the world for the better, and can succeed in blowing apart the corrupt corporations that threaten to destroy the world of racing.

The movie is deliberately campy, and that’s fine. I imagine the show was too. The beginning of the movie was fun as it introduced us to the world of Speed Racer and the people who inhabit this place. There is an innocence that was quite infectious as we see Speed daydreaming about the life he wants to lead. Who hasn’t had moments like that in their life? There was a good reason why I wasn’t always paying attention in Spanish class. Had the movie contained more of an innocent feel like that, then I imagine I would have liked it a lot more. There’s nothing wrong with a good throwback to the past, and it always brings back good memories that are always welcome.

But towards the last half of the movie, I was really getting restless. Just when you think the movie has reached its climax, there is a whole other part and feels dragged out. Maybe it’s because we all know how this movie ends, and the depressing part is that there is no excitement in it. The movie has heart, but not enough to fully envelop us into its gloriously colorful world. Because the movie is all CGI and practically all shot in front of a blue screen, we know everything is precise in movement and direction. This is nothing you can really improvise around. This makes the race scenes all the more disappointing because there is no real thrill in watching them. By the end, I was ready for it to be over. It didn’t matter how brilliant the visuals were. They don’t mean anything without soul.

This is the first movie the Wachowski Brothers have directed since the “The Matrix” sequels. They still have a knack for groundbreaking visual effects, and of following that one character who is “the one.” If it’s not Neo, then it’s Speed Racer himself. They do surround this film with good actors like John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, and Emile Hirsch who is coming off a plethora of praise for his work in “Into The Wild,” a movie which I still need to see. But the story and the characters are not enough here like they were in “The Matrix.” Maybe it’s because we have seen this story so many times before; the one man on a mission to stop the ones who control everything and who blind us to the truth of the world we live in. With “The Matrix,” that story was revolutionary and ground breaking. But with “Speed Racer,” there is nothing revolutionary except the visual spectrum of what’s on display, and it doesn’t change the fact that the story about a man going against the corporate world is old, old, old. There is also the sheer irony of the corporate world funding a movie where the independent people go against the corporations to win the day. That never is lost on me these days.

I didn’t hate “Speed Racer.” There is a lot to admire about it. It’s not really an actor’s movie, but then again these movies never really are (not these days anyway). I guess I’m sad that this movie, despite the amount of money put into it, didn’t excite me the way that it should. And I am sick of being forgiving to movies like these. The Wachowski Brothers may forever be imprisoned by the success of “The Matrix” movies, but they are better filmmakers and storytellers than this.

** out of ****


moviegirlinpasadena said...


moviegirlinpasadena said...

oops the loved it was meant for Harold &