Speed Racer (2008) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG for violence and language
Running time: 135 min

Cast: Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Roger Allam, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon, Paulie Litt, Nicholas Elia, Scott Porter, Richard Roundtree, Benno Fuhrmann
Director: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski

Screenplay: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski (based on the animated TV series created by Tatsuo Yoshida)
Review published May 19, 2008

The audience is like a great organ that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way. And someday we won't even have to make a movie-there'll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we'll just press different buttons and they'll go "ooooh" and "aaaah" and we'll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won't that be wonderful? ~~ Alfred Hitchcock, as paraphrased by Ernest Lehman.

If the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions) aim to regain the prominence they once held after their mega-smash, The Matrix, it isn't going to be with this big screen live-action version of the seminal 1960s Japanese cartoon from Tatsuo Yoshida.  As a motion picture project, Speed Racer has been a long time coming, and the legion of cult fans of the show merit at least one potential cult movie.  Unfortunately, for many, the Wachowski version is a missed opportunity.  Perhaps the biggest fault, among many, is that the Wachowski brothers slavishly adhere to a vision in their creative minds that is neither like Yoshida's creation or the universe as we know it altogether.  In the realm of The Matrix, such a virtual reality existence might fly, without that hook, it's an orphan project with nothing to root it, and consequently, it never bears fruit as anything except a visually interesting time-killer.

As a youth, Speed Racer (Hirsch, Lords of Dogtown) -- for those who aren't familiar, that is his actual name -- dreamt of being the best racecar driver he could be, living in the shadow of his older brother, and champion driver himself, Rex Racer (Porter, Music and Lyrics).  Along with his racecar designing father, Pops (Goodman, Bee Movie), one could say the need for speed is in his blood.  After his brother's untimely death in a controversial competition, Speed's drive to be the best goes into supercharge mode, as allegations about his brother's crimes come out, though Speed is out to find a way to exonerate him of the accusations.   Speed quickly becomes an international sensation, a worthy successor to Rex as the best there is, and this catches the eye of many corporate sponsors to the independent racing team.  The biggest of these fish won't take no for an answer, as Royalton of Royalton Industries (Allam, The Queen) puts the squeeze on Speed to race for him or not race at all.  Speed's eyes are soon opened that many of the biggest races are not determined by who is best, but by deals worked out between the mega-corporations, which use their fame and glory to bolster their position in the financial world.  It's up to Speed to put a wrench in the works, but with all the other drivers against him, it's going to be a game of survival to get to the finish line.

At 135 minutes and a budget rumored to be over $120 million, it's fairly apparent that the studios rarely, if ever, applied the brakes to this project run amok.  I realize that "Speed Racer" (aka "Mach Go Go Go") has a cult following, as do the Wachowskis, but apparently, no one bothered to find out that the market for such a vehicle is flimsy at best.  "Speed Racer", the original cartoon from the 1960s, is what the fans love.  Attempts to bring it back on television, comic books and other mediums have never been wildly successful, primarily because of the intrinsically quaint, campy nature of the TV show.  Tatsuo Yoshida, the show's creator and one of the early pioneer's successful enough to lay out the carpet for anime projects to the US, was a visionary, as are the Wachowskis.  Visionaries can be successful in delivering a quality film based on the work of other visionaries, but rarely if the film is based on something popular in the mind of the public.  Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is a fantastic film, but if the the Philip K. Dick story upon which it was based had been rampantly popular for decades by the mass public prior to its creation, it might be considered a failure for not capturing the essence of the original work. 

The Wachowski brothers make the fatal error of trying to please two sets of fans at once: their own and that of the television show.  Wachowski fans expect ballsy, pulpy comic book-type action with lots of visual zip and intelligent concepts.  Fans of the TV show expect a breezy, good-spirited production that delivers action, intrigue, and a lot of destruction without the high overhead of realistic carnage.  There are many ways this endeavor could have gone and been successful, perhaps a spoof of the show, or even one that is wholly unique.  Unfortunately, the Wachowskis try to stuff all of the elements of the television show into a suit of dark thriller elements, rampant CGI environs, and surreal characterizations that are neither anime-inspired nor domestic comic book.  In short, it's a mish-mash of ideas without an anchor, trying to please all factions but never making a connection to any one of them in the process.

Speed Racer has the look and feel of a video game, albeit one that has an inordinate amount of talking in between and during the action.  During and after their work on the last two Matrix sequels, the Wachowskis spent the bulk of their time working on video games tie-ins like "Enter the Matrix", "Path of Neo" and "The Matrix Online".  It is beginning to look like they are far more interested in making movies that would be cool games than in making cool movies from the outset.  Though not without camp value, there are moments when the tone is deadly serious, coming across like an automobile version of the bleak satire Rollerball.  By the end of the film, they go for broke with a finale that tries to pull out all of the stops, but it doesn't work.  We can't be moved if the ride left us at the gate before we had a chance to hop on.

Interesting that, once upon a time, this was the duo that challenged us with the notion that reality was a fiction, with all of the realistic environs just artificial coding to give us the semblance of existence.  Nearly a decade later, it seems that it is the Wachowskis that are lost to technology, only they have gone down to a core level of video game appeal, where they feed us nothing but stimuli of flashing lights and whirring sounds that are meant to produce an emotional response of satisfaction, hypnotizing us into feeling sensory pleasures for cinematic bliss.  To get into these images and sounds, perhaps we'll have to take a hallucinogenic blue or red pill as we enter the theater so that we can make sense of it all instead of a couple of little white ones afterward to make the headache go away.  If the Wachowskis ever perfect the sensory hypnosis technique they seem determined to continue to explore, Hitchcock's prediction above may become the reality.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo