I take back everything I ever said about 1998’s Armageddon being the epitome of sensory overload. The Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer is certainly an ambitious visual project, but aside from that it is a misfire without much of an audience (it seems to be aiming squarely for the pre-teen, sugared-up male). The film is absurdly complicated for such a young demographic, and at 135 minutes it will be a monotonous chore for most others.
Young Speed Racer (Hirsch, played as a child by Nicholas Elia) has an uncommon fascination with racing. He spends most of his days at school daydreaming about taking the sharp turns in his decked-out racer. His older brother, Rex (Scott Porter), is already a star in a family of racing legacy. Speed has similar dreams, and as an adult he begins to realize him. His success and fame draws the attention of Royalton (Roger Allam), the owner of a rival racing team to Speed’s family’s business. Royalton offers Speed a lucrative plan to join his conglomeration. Loyal to his family, Speed declines. Royalton doesn’t take the news well and vows that Speed will never win another race. With the help of his family, girlfriend, Trixie (Ricci), and the mysterious Racer X (Fox), Speed prepares himself for the ultimate race: the Crucible.
Nearly the first two acts of Speed Racer are exposition, hardly any of which is necessary. I realize that the Wachowskis have a separate demographic (those who watched the animated series as a kid) to please, but I can’t imagine today’s target audience giving a hoot about any of it. We flash back and forward to gain a greater understanding of Speed’s motives, but at least forty minutes of it could have been nixed. Those looking for a unique visual experience will find it, but it wears off quickly. The Wachowskis have gone drunk with effects, and the collective result is a migraine and the desire to stare at a white wall for a few hours afterwards. The action is a mish-mash of neon colors that never really flows, no thanks to extreme close-ups and very little sense of scope.
The fine cast is mostly wasted. Emile Hirsch, right off the success and critical acclaim of his role in Into the Wild, is given little depth to work with and spends inordinate amounts of time grimacing behind the wheel of his race car, the Mach 5. Given even less to do is Christina Ricci, whose Trixie played a much bigger part in the cartoon. Here she just gives doe-eyed stares and takes a backseat to every other character. A plasticized John Goodman at least tries as Speed’s father, and Susan Sarandon is passable as Speed’s mother. Roger Allam, looking like a cross between Tim Curry and Al Gore, is entertainingly over-the-top as the diabolical Royalton.
Speed Racer was no great shakes to start with, and this film adaptation only confirms that even more. The Wachowskis have taken it upon themselves to try and please everyone, but in turn haven’t really pleased anyone. It’s too much of a sugar high for filmgoers in their 50’s who remember the cartoon as a kid and too overly-written and plotted for today’s youngsters. Perhaps a video game would have been a respectable compromise.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 135 Minutes
Rating: PG for sequences of action, some violence and language.
Theatrical Release: May 9, 2008
Directed by: Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski.
Written by: Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski. Based upon the animated series written by Tatsuo Yoshida.
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, Kick Gurry