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- Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox
- Wrriten By: The Wachowski Brothers
- Directed By: The Wachowski Brothers
- Distributor: Warner Brothers
Wachowskis Hit a 'Speed' Bump
By Scott Mantz
May 09, 2008
Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer in SPEED RACER (2008).
© Warner Bros. Pictures
“Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer! He's a demon on wheels!”
If you can sing the rest of that song—or at least, the very next verse (“he's a demon, and he's gonna be chasing after someone!”)—then the odds are that you'll be disappointed by the big screen version of Speed Racer. And if you aren't disappointed, then you'll at least walk away with a very big headache.
That's because “Speed Racer” is an overstuffed, over-long, over-plotted mess. And that's a crushing blow for anyone who raced home after school in the early 70s to see Speed rev up the powerful Mach 5 in the classic cartoon. It's also a major letdown for fans of Larry and Andy Wachowski, the writing-directing brothers behind the groundbreaking Matrix trilogy.
But kids who have no recollection of the original TV show probably won't care, since they'll be totally consumed by the eye-popping special effects, the colorful production values and the hyper-kinetic racing sequences. At least that will keep them distracted from trying to figure out the convoluted, ho-hum story, which has more twists and turns than the Indy 500.
Where grown-ups are concerned, it's too bad that the Wachowskis didn't give the characters some room to breathe (though they had plenty of time to do so, since the film clocks in at 2 hours and 15 minutes). As it is, Speed ends up feeling like a guest star in his own movie, and the supporting players have so little to do that their cartoon counterparts seem to have more depth by comparison.
The basic premise is the same as the Japanese anime version, which was created in 1967 and later dubbed into English. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is an idealistic dreamer who grew up in a racing family. He regularly competes in the hi-tech Mach 5, built by his father, Pops Racer (John Goodman), and he is haunted by the mysterious death of his legendary brother, Rex Racer.
But when Speed turns down a lucrative offer to drive for a ruthless business tycoon, he discovers that races are being fixed by top sponsors in an effort to boost their profits. So with the help of his family, his loyal girlfriend (Christina Ricci) and his one-time rival—the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox)—Speed competes in a deadly race to preserve the sanctity of the sport.
After revolutionizing the industry with the “Matrix” films—which themselves were inspired by anime—the Wachowskis seemed like the perfect team to get behind the wheel of a turbo-charged (and family-friendly) spectacle like Speed Racer. And on a visual scale, they were, since they spared no expense of the film's $150 million budget to make the surrealistic landscape burst with color in a way that recalls 1990’s Dick Tracy.
But when it comes to overloading the movie with special effects (as they did with the two “Matrix” sequels), the Wachowskis just couldn't help themselves. This is especially true during the zippy racing sequences, which are cut so fast that it's hard to get a bearing on which direction the Mach 5 is actually going. The effect is more overwhelming than exciting, and that prevents the film from succeeding where it should have succeeded the most.
It also prevents the 2-dimensional characters from getting the 3-dimensional makeovers they deserved. The actors certainly look their parts, but their roles are so underdeveloped that the performances end up stiff. What a shame, since the talented cast includes Emile Hirsch (“Into the Wild”), Christina Ricci as Speed's girlfriend Trixie, John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as his parents, and Matthew Fox, who may (or may not) be his long lost brother Rex.
So leave it up to Speed's trouble-making younger brother Spritle and his trusty sidekick Chim-Chim to steal the movie—and that's not a good thing. Warner Bros. and producer Joel Silver may have been revving up for a fast-paced new film franchise, but as written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, it's too fast in all the wrong places. So here comes Speed Racer—and there he goes. Sorry, Speed, we hardly knew you.