Speed Racer opens with a shot of a boy, perhaps six years old, trapped in a school desk, anxiously tapping his foot while daydreaming of a racecar-inspired fantasyland. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this spastic display of multicolored auto-mania. The whole film has been designed to look like a Hello Kitty on bad acid — splashes and swirls of garish color fuel every frame — and all of it flies by with the painful rapidity of a machine gun. It’s not so much a movie as a barrage of computer-generated twitches stitched together for an audience that has trouble paying attention through an entire commercial.
Written and directed by the Wachowskis, the pair of weirdo wizard siblings (in case they cannot still be called “brothers“) behind the Matrix films, Speed Racer takes its creators’ eccentric cinematic lineage and mauls it. In the first two Matrix films, the Wachowskis demonstrated an uncanny visual sense, one that emphasized fluidity and motion over all else. People walked on walls, made multi-story leaps, and participated in gunfights choreographed as bullet-ridden ballets. It was comic-book violence reinvented as an elegant spectacle unbound by earthly limitations. There was a liberating spirit to those films; the Wachowskis approached physics as a curious three-year-old does his favorite playthings — through acts of creative disassembly. Mass, density, and gravity weren’t hard and fast rules to be obeyed so much as ideas to be deconstructed. The siblings gave the impression of speed by slowing things down, and in doing so, created some of the most impressive and memorable action set-pieces in cinematic history.
Their penchant for unrestrained acrobatics would seem to make the pair a perfect fit to adapt Speed Racer, a hokey late-60s Japanese cartoon about a teenage racecar driver. Yet while the Wachowskis’ signatures are evident, they seemed to have learned all the wrong lessons from their previous work.
The Matrix films doled out action scenes in graceful, mostly wordless environments, focusing on the interplay between the bodies on screen, and rarely cutting away from the action. Speed Racer adopts a similarly casual attitude toward physics — the cars jump, wiggle, and flip, spinning around impossible corners and doing oh-wow loop-de-loops — and infuses it with a childish, bubblegum aesthetic.
But what ought to be delirious is, instead, disorienting. The Wachowskis barely have the patience to follow fully a single move, much less work through a full-length race sequence. Like its young protagonist, the film can barely sit still. It’s possible, I suppose, that the racing scenes here are just as stunning as anything they’ve done before, but the rhythm is so choppy, no one will ever be able to tell. Instead of staying locked on cars on the track, the film repeatedly cuts away to a slew of talking heads — track announcers and characters with vested interests in what’s going on — who narrate the action for the audience. Thus, what should come across as action-movie excitement becomes as thrilling as listening to the radio.
Not surprisingly, the story makes as much sense as the film’s physics, but is both less interesting and less consequential. Speed — yes, his name is really “Speed Racer” — proves adept at navigating his family’s car, the Mach 5, around the movie’s ludicrously designed race courses. Rather quickly, a giant corporation run by a man named Royalton (Roger Allam) decides it wants to sign him. But, aided by the masked and mysterious Racer X (Lost’s Matthew Fox), it soon turns out that the corporation only means to use Speed and his family to boost their bottom line — and of course, a lot of loud and incoherent racing is required to once again set things aright.
In other words, the conflict is nothing but a pretext for more animated zooming and vrooming. That approach suits their male lead, Emile Hirsch, who functions as little more than a face inserted into a digital car. The flesh-and-blood Speed glowers and grimaces, delivering line after line of thuddingly dull declarations where dialogue could have been. He seems to have taken Keanu Reeves as his performance model (whereas Reeves models his own performances on drying paint). Both Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, as Mom and Pops Racer, are confined to the same dour, straight-faced stoicism that plagued the cast of The Matrix. Christina Ricci shows up as Trixie, a supposed love interest with a Spock-style haircut whose main function seems to be uttering the phrase “cool beans” at opportune moments.
Only Roger Allam as the grandiose capitalist manages to make any real impression. In part, this is because he bears a spooky resemblance to Christopher Hitchens, except even more overbearing. And in part, it’s because he’s the only one who bothers to turn in a performance as ostentatious as his surroundings, calling to mind his over-the-top rendition of the fascist-state evening-news propagandist Lewis Prothero in the Wachowskis’ V for Vendetta. While the other actors drip monotone bromides, Allam fires big, belligerent tirades — his bellicosity is almost beautiful.
Of course, he’s just keeping up with his lurid surroundings, the net effect of which may count as violence against the moviegoer. It’s loud, it’s gaudy, it’s obnoxious — the film seems to demand that the audience watch rather than entice it to do so. The arcade sensibility evokes Daytona by way of Fremont Street in Las Vegas, or perhaps Hot Wheels as overhauled by Willy Wonka. Every frame is so juiced, so aggressively charged with unnecessary zip and zoom, that I felt more assaulted than entertained.
Blockbusters, of course, are under no mandate to edify their viewers, but this one seemed not only to lack educative value, but to actively seek to mangle the brains of its audience as it speeds along, recklessly bouncing off its neon-lit digital walls. It is jarring, and unpleasantly so. Most who attend this film are likely to come out poorer for the experience. Still, I did learn one thing from it: now I know what it feels like to be a pinball.
– Peter Suderman is editor of Doublethink Online.