Speed Racer is a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute sugar rush of a film, dazzling and exciting, a little too frantic and a little too long. The Wachowski Brothers have not, this time around, come up with anything as world-splittingly original as The Matrix, but they’ve created a different kind of marvel. Kids will dig the colorful, fast-paced action and the loopy, somewhat convoluted plot, while adults who are interested in cinema as an artform should be able to lose themselves in the film’s dazzling visual construction.
I don’t just mean the advanced green-screen technology that the Wachowskis use to eye-popping effect in nearly every frame. It’s not only the look of any particular shot that’s remarkable, but the way the film moves: people and objects fly across the frame, effortlessly transitioning from one shot to the next; perspectives shift in completely unexpected ways; the background whips in and out of focus depending on the motion in the foreground. It’s an attempt to replicate the look of the original Speed Racer anime cartoon, but I’ve seen the cartoon, and it didn’t look like this. This is something else — an intricately constructed carnival ride of a movie. It’s very impressive.
As fans of the source material are aware, the story takes place in a universe where automobile racing is the biggest and only game in town, an obsession bigger than football, bigger than soccer, bigger than American Idol. Cars can do amazing things here, and the people who can drive them well are sought after and worshipped. The best drivers are invariably in the employ of tycoon E.P. Royalton (Roger Allam), but a few independent renegades sometimes manage to eke out a living. One such unaffiliated hopeful is Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), a prodigiously talented young driver who comes from a family full of car freaks; his father Pops Racer (John Goodman) has run his own car company for ages and his brother Rex (Scott Porter) was a racing prodigy who died trying to bring down the corporate criminal underworld that, rumor has it, rigs the big contests to maximize revenue. As the film begins, Royalton is working to recruit Speed into his ranks, and the shadowy Racer X (Matthew Fox), flanked by government agents, approaches Speed with a dangerous proposal that could bring down racing’s nefarious, profit-obsessed overlords and reveal the truth about Rex’s fate.
The storytelling isn’t straightforward — there are few major scenes that don’t leap across time and space. The opening sequence is an elaborate juxtaposition of Rex and Speed’s respective best races that’s remarkable for its trust in its young audience: what the film is doing only becomes clear as the scene progresses. In the best anime tradition, the plot turns out to be both goofy and rather involved, but the (scant, all things considered) exposition is enlivened by the Wachowskis’ meticulous pyrotechnics, and the ultimate goals (WIN THE RACE!) are simple enough to excite even the youngest. Speed Racer, then, should work for a very wide demographic, and those who manage to get bored should be able to relax and watch the colors whiz by.
The Wachowskis do struggle a bit with the earnestness and sentimentality of the material. Part of the problem is that this isn’t the best role for Emile Hirsch — as I argued when writing about Into the Wild, Hirsch acts with his body rather than his face, which makes sitting around and being shot mostly in close-up problematic. His performance (unlike, say, John Goodman’s) doesn’t quite sell the premise, the universe, or the oversimplified emotions that dominate the film. And the Wachowskis never get a handle on a lot of the humor: Chim-Chim the monkey, who likes to stow away in car trunks, is more of an annoyance than anything else.
Then there’s the matter of the film’s length, which might annoy the contingent that categorically has a problem with family films running past the two-hour mark. Speed Racer does feel a little long in that watching it maintain fever pitch for 135 minutes is wearying. But the movie never drags, and is never anything less than giddy, spectacular, sugary fun. It’s a work of genuine creativity, and a worthy return for the Wachowskis.