Speed Racer currently leads a race it won't want to win. Right now it's the summer's most irrelevant blockbuster, the first missed opportunity of a still-developing season that hasn't yet entered turn one. Even worse, Racer now sits in the pole position for the undesirable title of Year's Goofiest Movie.
Andy and Larry Wachowski, creators of the Matrix trilogy, contradict themselves from the start. The brothers have written and directed a live-action adaptation of the 1960s anime series that fails to keep a foot in reality. Speed Racer doesn't break new ground; it clings to cartoonish boundaries established by Wile E. Coyote as he pursued that pesky Road Runner. If The Matrix taught the pseudo-spiritual Neo that there was no spoon, then Speed Racer posits that there is no camera. Instead, the Wachowskis are free to bend and twist reality as they create their vibrant environments in high-tech computers. The effect imbues Racer with the depth and dramatic significance of a screen saver.
The need for speed sustains the Racer family. Pops (John Goodman
) constructs sleek cars which are piloted on the professional circuit by oldest son Rex (Scott Porter
). Controversy soon swarms around Rex, though, as he's labeled a dirty driver. Rex eventually leaves Team Racer but his freedom doesn't last. He dies in a horrific crash, inspiring younger brother Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch
) to hop behind the wheel and restore his family's name. Article continues below
Choosing to follow up Into the Wild with an engorged cyber-beast like Speed Racer is a bad move for Hirsch. The young actor laid his soul bare to play a drifter in Sean Penn's poetic and spare rumination on man's place in society. Yet Hirsch, like most of his cast mates, gets by with one or two facial reactions over Speed's very long 135-minute run time.
The bloated length is one of several reasons why the hollow Speed Racer isn't ideal for children. An overly complicated plot involving a corrupt team owner (Roger Allam) fixing races to drive up stock prices will shoot over the head of any youngster who doesn't subscribe to The Wall Street Journal. Aside from Rex's fiery death -- which is followed by Speed's difficult emotional breakdown -- the supposed family film shows scenes of drivers being fed to piranhas, shot at by menacing mobsters, and thrown from moving vehicles. The PG rating isn't suspect; it's laughable. And I haven't even mentioned the gross overacting of Paulie Litt as Speed's brother Spritle, or the presence of his poop-throwing monkey Chim Chim.
The Wachowskis hope to lure children to their surreal nightmare with the promise of flamboyant color schemes and eye-catching visual designs. And if Speed Racer accomplishes anything, it properly simulates how a pinball must feel after it is smacked in the back by a paddle and sent screaming headlong into a bright-light bumper. But the film's empty and insincere race sequences erode into worthless mash-ups of insignificant images that make the loopiest roller coaster feel like the "It's a Small World" ride at Disney.
The mess culminates in the Grand Prix, Speed's final race where he lays it all on the line and learns -- through the spiritual guidance of the mysterious and staggeringly dull Racer X (Matthew Fox
) -- why he drives in the first place. Like the rest of the movie, the sequence is an incomprehensibly jumbled splotch of Day-Glo coloring agents. When the race concluded, a child sitting behind me asked his mom, "Did he win?" She honestly answered, "I donít know."
From my viewpoint, he lost. Big time.