I like pop art, kinetic art and psychedelic art — grew up on it. I can appreciate camp and kitsch in small doses. Speed Racer is a live action cartoon that is stuffed to the breaking point with all that. Forget going to an art museum and walking past the paintings, Speed Racer is a campy, kitschy pop/kinetic/psychedelic art exhibit in which you sit down while it whizzes past you. That’s why I’m giving it three stars.
As a movie, Speed Racer is messy, which is why I’m not giving it a higher rating. The simple story is needlessly complicated by flashbacks, subplots and excessive villainous yakking, and the racing scenes — you know, the core of the movie — don’t pack nearly the punch they should, largely because the campy, kitschy pop/kinetic/psychedelic art is slathered on so thick that a lot of cool moments get lost in the wash of color and motion. Also, at 135 minutes, it’s too long.
The basics: Speed Racer is the first movie made by the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, since they created The Matrix and its two lousy sequels. In addition to directing the film, they wrote the screenplay. The whole project is based on the animated Japanese TV series from the ’60s that was created by Tatsuo Yoshida. I vaguely remember watching the show — it looked weird; the characters, including a monkey, were broader than any I’d ever seen before, and the racing scenes, while terribly repetitive, were still exciting. And the theme song was insanely catchy.
The Wachowskis transfer all of that to the big screen, except their races aren’t as exciting as they should be. They’re busy, holy smokes, are they ever busy, and they’re easy to watch because of the aforementioned trippiness, but they’re not all that exciting. For one thing, on whatever racing circuit these folks run in, there appear to be virtually no rules. I’m not just talking about the rules of the game, but also the rules of physics. Drivers shoot at each other, lob oil at other cars, use saws to try and destroy the wheels of competitors and, except at the end, no one except the racers seem to object. Mind you, I’m not complaining about this, I’m just noting it.
What I am complaining about, a little, is the complete disregard of the rules of physics, which removes any sense of risk. Much ado is made over the loss of the lead character’s brother in a racing accident, but I couldn’t figure out how he, or any of the drivers, could get killed in this candy-colored surreal world where cars collide with loud crashing noises, then emerge from large clouds of smoke to continue to race. There is some sort of protective system where crashing drivers get enveloped in foamy balls — pretty nifty, but I never got a good look at it because the Wachowskis didn’t pause to let me see.
The cast is fine in their undemanding roles. Emile Hirsch from Into the Wild is Speed Racer — yes, Racer is the family name and imagine how hard it would have been for Speed if he had wanted to be a dentist instead of a race car driver. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon play his folks, Scott Porter from the Friday Night Lights TV series plays brother Rex and Matthew Fox from Lost is the mysterious Racer X. Christina Ricci smiles more than she’s done in her entire career as Speed’s gal pal Trixie. And there’s a little brother and a monkey.
My guess is that the biggest audience for Speed Racer will be children and grown-ups experienced in hallucinogens, and that most other adults will get bored and annoyed. I like it three stars worth, so there you go.