Monday, May 12, 2008

Speed Racer / *** (PG)

Speed Racer: Emile Hirsch
Racer X: Matthew Fox
Royalton: Roger Allam
Trixie: Christina Ricci
Pops: John Goodman
Mom: Susan Sarandon
Spritle: Paulie Litt
Taejo Togokhan: Rain

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by The Wachowski Brothers. Based on the animated series created by Tatsuo Yoshida. Running time: 135 min. Rated PG (for sequences of action, some violence and language).

In a article on Ang Lee’s 2003 film “Hulk”, I discussed how a critic can change his mind. In watching “Speed Racer”, the latest visual epic by the Wachowski Brothers (the team responsible for “The Matrix” trilogy) and in absorbing the critical fallout that has greeted it, I’m reminded of the backlash against Lee’s film. Both films share a rich and original visual approach. Both have been praised for their visual virtuosity, and yet both have been rejected by the critical and popular majority.

American audiences seem to like their motion picture entertainment in a form they can easily recognize. Even the critical elite have certain values they expect their vastly ranging taste to uphold, whether they wish to admit it or not. “Speed Racer” breaks away from the form we expect popcorn entertainment to take. It is visually experimental and yet conventional in its themes and structure.

Based on the popular Japanese animated television series from the late sixties, The Wachowski Brothers seem to be channeling the spirit of the original series into the filmmaking techniques of the future. The original series, for many Americans, was their first exposure to the animation style known as anime. Anime is distinguished by characters with widely expressive facial features, such as eyes and mouths that can go from the smallest speck of an impression to large outlets taking up a character’s entire face. While American animation is more concerned with the action of the characters, Japanese anime focuses more on character emotion, using stills to represent much of the action. With “Speed Racer”, the Wachowskis have attempted to translate American action combined with that sort of Japanese expressionism into a live action format.

Speed (Emile Hirsch, “Into the Wild”) has been obsessed with racing since he was just a kid. He looked up to his brother Rex (Scott Porter, “Prom Night”), the fastest driver on the track circuit until he left one night to join the rougher road race tournaments and soon was killed in an accident. Speed develops into his brother’s equal under the tutelage and technical knowledge of his Pops (John Goodman, “The Big Lebowski”) and Mom (Susan Sarandon, “Enchanted”). His own image and rambunctiousness have been copied by his younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt, “Jersey Girl”), who provides comedic relief along with his pet monkey, Chim Chim. Trixie (Christina Ricci, “Penelope”) gives Speed more personal support and is treated as an inevitable family member.

But first Speed must race himself out of his brother’s shadow, which he almost literally does in an opening race sequence that alternates between Speed’s breakthrough race and flashbacks of Rex’s record-holding win. Speed’s white Mach 5 morphs back to Rex’s red Mach 4 as he races the course in a replication of his brother’s biggest win. As Speed closes in on his brother’s record, the ghost of his brother’s car can be seen flying down the track next to him.

The races quite appropriately provide the most stunning images. Take note that there is no reality to be found here. This is a pure fantasy racing movie where the cars can use hydraulic springs to flip over each other and jump forward and backward around the track, knocking each other about as if it were some sort of street fight using the cars as weapons. Some cars are even equipped with illegal devices designed to take out the other cars. In fact, to call this movie live action is quite misleading, since the CGI elements far outweigh any in-camera images. The actors are about the only live elements in a story that centers more on the races than the conversations.

Actually, much of the criticism the film has received has come from the large amount of time it does spend on the non-action scenes. Perhaps this is not entirely unwarranted as the story is far simpler than the script seems to realize. There is a great deal of unnecessary screen time dedicated to the movie’s villain, the corporate devil Royalton. Royalton offers Speed a contract to race for his company, and when Speed turns him down Royalton makes him regret it with his “you will rue the day” speech alone. I didn’t have any problem with the teeth gnashing by Roger Allam (“V for Vendetta”) as Royalton, but there’s about twenty minutes here that could have easily been whittled down to three.

When Royalton squeezes him out of a qualifying race for the Grand Prix, Speed then teams up with the mysterious Racer X to expose Royalton’s corruption of the racing industry. Racer X is one of the most exciting elements of the story and the filmmakers use capricious restraint in this character’s treatment. Matthew Fox (“Vantage Point”) portrays this wild card with an underplayed quality that might seem to give him a “one of these things is not like the other” presence but actually serves to exaggerate the mysteriousness of his presence, fitting well with all the film’s other exaggerations.

One of those exaggerations—the film’s highlight—is the editing style. The Wachowskis and film editors Roger Barton and Zach Staenberg have taken a cue from Lee’s “Hulk” and amped it up in the process. Like “Hulk”, the filmmakers use multilayered images, overlaying different shots on top of one another, with various wipes and sweeps to give the movie a comic book feel. They even use still images to comedic effect to realize some of the hand-to-hand combat scenes. It gives the film an impression of something that has never been attempted before, at least not to this degree.

While the visual originality and editing style of “Speed Racer” ties it to “Hulk” in its look, it does not attempt the depth of Lee’s film beyond its indictment of big business conglomerates. I suppose there is some irony in that, since the film was released by a subsidiary of one of the world’s largest media corporations. It does, however, deliver the action-oriented plot people wished for with “Hulk”. I think two of my son Jack’s observations during the film sum it up best. During one of the final races he said with astonishment, “There’s a lot of explosions in this.” And during Speed’s initial trip to Royalton headquarters he said, “That doesn’t look like a city; that looks like a wonderland.”

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