My expectations for Speed Racer were understandably low. This was, after all, a directorial effort by the Wachowski brothers, who’d managed one of the bigger surprise blockbusters in 1999 with The Matrix, but managed to spin that into one of the most soul-deadening sequels of all time in 2003. (Actually, two soul-deadening sequels, but the second was so bad I still haven’t seen the third all the way through.)
However, I had to acknowledge that they do have a certain visual flair. And while not strictly behind the camera, they’d helped put together the enjoyable V for Vendetta adaptation.
The visual flair was readily apparent from the trailers. They had amped up the visuals to a stunning degree with colors just popping out all over the place in the more-than-real sense of high dynamic range photography. On multiple occasions after the first trailer came out, I had a friend describe it as watching a live-action Mario Kart race.
In this sense, the film delivers. The visuals are spot-on throughout. However, I’d have to disagree with my friends. This isn’t Mario Kart, but instead another Nintendo franchise: F-Zero. The cars are not little buggies with weapons, but overpowered machines on gravity-defying tracks where only the slightest loss of control spells the (near) doom of the driver.
That sense barely restrained power is pushed further because these are not just straight muscle races. The cars collide, drift, and skid around the tracks in the sense of a stunt-induced stock car race, but also twist and jump thanks to otherworldly add-ons. Physics, indeed reality itself, is put on hold in an almost loving attachment for the ridiculousness of the original anime.
This is perhaps the greatest strength of the film. The Wachowskis seemed to realize that what they were trying to portray would only be ruined if they attempted to make it realistic. Instead, this might be one of the purest attempts to create a presentational world, that bears little connection to our own, in live-action film. In a sense, it’s like they tapped into the psyches of Spike Jonze and Michael Gondry although without stating that what is happening is all in someone’s mind.
To achieve this, they’ve made this new reality futuristic, certainly, but tied strictly to the style and sense of the 50s and 60s era that begat the original. Hence the bright vibrant colors, of course, but a number of smaller details stand out. The characters themselves all look like they’ve been plucked from a bygone era, perhaps typified most by Susan Sarandon’s flip haircut. The Racer household even more emphasizes this nostalgia, with the wallpaper, furnishings, and even the basic layout looking like it belongs in late 1950s suburbia.
The musical score by Michael Giacchino is an interesting and positive addition to support the overall tone. It samples heavily from the classic anime soundtrack, but rather than taking the sound and modernizing it, the sound is rather made to create that 60s-era sensibility. Giacchino jumped back several decades, spurning techno or rock updates and even choosing to skip on the John Williams-esque orchestrations from the 70s. The score sounds like it might have come from the mind of Hugo Montenegro, and it works perfectly.
The result is a film that, short of 3-D, might be the most likely to jump out at the screen. The races are enjoyable and exciting and linked by slower scenes that at their core show appreciation and nostalgia for the mid-century American family unit.
It’s not perfect, however. At times the race action gets too active and confusing, much the way last year’s Transformers did. At times it would have been beneficial for the Wachowskis to slow things down a bit so we can get drawn into the action more. Rather than sitting on the sidelines with the family, we’d prefer to be behind the wheel with Speed. While we are the movies audience, it doesn’t make sense to also make us spectators to the races themselves.
And despite the excitement in the video game sense, there is a bit of predisposition to the races. We’re never really left with the sense that Speed or Racer X are in any real danger. The one time Speed does lose is first foreshadowed (or predicted), but the action event itself happens off-screen. This makes it more difficult to connect and again creates the sense that we’re not being invited to fully enjoy the world that’s been created.
The film has other problems. The writing is uneven and overly long, which probably makes the entire picture about 15-20 minutes too long. This is really a shame, because the first race sequence manages to fairly successfully blend a somewhat involved and complex backstory into the present action, a rather nifty cinematic trick. After that, the plot proceeds in a fairly pedestrian manner. I can’t help but think how much better it would have worked if they had tried to increase the information density along with the visual density.
Also, the acting is rather bad. Emile Hirsch is a passable Speed, but in truth it probably could have been any young actor behind the wheel. Christina Ricci is an enjoyable Trixie, showing sass and independence, and looks wonderfully alluring, but this isn’t stretching her acting chops any. Roger Allam is an enjoyable bad guy, but he’s also overacting enough to evoke Alan Rickman from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I believel Allam would have eaten all the scenery, if it actually existed. And then there’s Matthew Fox as Racer X, who looks and sounds completely wooden throughout. Apparently Keanu Reeves turned down the part; The Wachowskis must have told Fox to just be like Keanu.
Still, I’m left somewhat surprised that the good outweighs the bad for the film. It’s not great by any stretch, and I’m not sure if I’d ever want or need to see it again, but it’s an enjoyable two hours, and given the visual feast, I can’t say that the time or money spent on the IMAX experience was wasted.
It’s a shame, really, that in the weeks leading into the release, the reception started to tank. The blame can probably be laid at the hands of WB’s ever-vigilent marketing department. Few companies are so good at turning potentially strong products into mediocre-at-best performers. Because of that, we’ll probably not see another attempt like this for quite some time. And while the Wachowskis may not have fully succeeded in making a good film, they did succeed in doing something quite different and doing it well. If this had been successful, perhaps we’d be in for a real treat: a fully presentational film that’s visually stunning and good cinema.