So, last night, after deciding on a whim to go catch the midnight IMAX showing of the Wachowskis’ hyperkinetic, candy-coated Speed Racer, I had a bit of a Gob Bluth moment. (As in, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) For, after the ticket had been purchased, Metacritic informed me that Racer is currently rocking a lowly 35, and some critics are really hating on it. (See, for example, wry film-snob Anthony Lane, who calls it “pop fascism” and ridicules the anti-corporate message as “faux-leftish paranoia.” And even critics I tend to agree with, like Stephanie Zacharek and David Edelstein, seem to have loathed it.) And once i got to Lincoln Square, matters looked worse: As compared to every other midnight showing I’ve ever been to, the crowd was sparse to the point of non-existent. Did, I wonder, the Wachowskis have a Matrix: Revolutions-level bomb on their hands?
Maybe, maybe not, but Speed Racer really doesn’t merit all the contempt being heaped upon it this morning. Mind you, Racer is definitely a movie for children, but that in and of itself shouldn’t argue against it. (I’ve sat through considerably worse kids’ movies in my day.) Basically, Racer is a preteen-friendly, maybe slightly overlong, summer pop confection, and it’s no better or worse, narratively-speaking, than the Spy Kids flicks (all three of which did significantly better with critics.) And, in terms of eye candy, it pushes the envelope and showed me things I’d never seen before in a film, and at breakneck speed to boot. What, exactly, were all these critics expecting? Did they miss that this movie was based on a 1960’s Japanese cartoon, and that one of the characters was a chimp wearing overalls? Speaking of which, I have even less fondness for Racer as a pop-culture product than I did Iron Man — I wasn’t born when the cartoon aired, I was living overseas at the age when I would have enjoyed it, and found it kitschy, dated, and dumb when MTV brought it back in 1993. So, this isn’t the “nerdstalgia” talking: If I was between the ages of 5 and 11, I’d probably think this movie was just about the coolest thing I’d seen since…well, since Iron Man, I guess, but I still would’ve dug it. And, as a 33-year-old, there were more enough splendidly weird wipes, flashbacks, and fades to keep me interested through the rough spots.
Oh, you want more? Ok, well, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, eventually), the second son of a car-crazy family (conveniently named the Racers), spends his school hours day-dreaming of the track and hanging with his pixie-cute (girl)friend, Trixie. (Christina Ricci, eventually.) But Speed’s life takes a tragic and Kennedyesque turn when his older brother Rex (Scott Porter) is vaporized in an ugly car accident, some time after he’d left home angry with Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon). As such, Speed grows up to inherit the family racing mantle instead, and, as it turns out, he’s pretty darn good at it, so much so that the ruthless head of an obviously evil corporate conglomerate (Roger Allam of V for Vendetta, still looking exactly like Chris Hitchens) wants Speed to race for his well-funded team. But, when Speed decides to stick with the mom-and-pop outfit instead, he incurs the wrath of the insidious Bad Guys, who now set out to destroy him. But, with the help of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox…I think that’s his jawline), the racing scion Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop star Rain…shouldn’t this be Stephen Colbert?), and, of course, his loving family (also including little brother Spritle, handyman Sparky, and monkey Chim-Chim), Speed sets out to beat the odds regardless. And, hey, maybe he’ll learn a few things about racing — and life — in the process.
And that’s about it, folks…Like, I said, it’s a kids’ film. (And while maybe Speed Racer and his friends versus the Big Bad Oligarchy isn’t nuanced enough for the likes of Anthony Lane, I’m guessing it’ll resonate well enough for eight-year-olds.) Helping things along are a bevy of solid performances: Hirsch is a bit of a cipher as Speed, but it’s hard to see how it could’ve been otherwise. Better are John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as the Racers. Both are excellent actors in their own right, of course, but it’s good to see neither suffer from the Portmanitis that has afflicted other otherwise-respectable thespians in heavy-green-screen productions. And then there’s Matthew Fox as Racer X, which is funny for several reasons. Not only is it absurdly perfect casting — Fox looks and sounds exactly like the cartoon character — but the sight of Fox intoning blandly (and occasionally bringing the kung-fu) in his leather Racer X outfit almost seems like it has to be a self-deprecating knock by the Wachowskis on their earlier franchise. (Well, at least I hope they’re in on the joke. The Neo-isms of the final act are way over the top, and a lot of the secondary performances, from Speed’s teacher to the goons dressed like From Hell extras to the fellow playing Inspector Detector, often seem like Eurotrash rejects from the heady days of Zion raving too.)
All that being said, you’re not going to walk out of Speed Racer talking about the performances. The real star of the show is the hypersaturated, zippity-quick look of the whole enterprise. And, while I easily see how people could feel overstimulated to the point of nausea by it (or that it might very well be less captivating on a non-IMAX-sized screen), I was consistently diverted by the look of Speed Racer, and particularly when the brothers Wachowski experiment with some all-new tricks. The cartoonishly-integrated flashback wipes, while perhaps overused, are definitely a neat effect, as are the squiggly-enhanced kung-fu/romance scenes and the “radio” zooms. And the whole movie just has a bizarre wonder to it: Note the sequence just before the start of the desert race, for example — It’s like something out of a fever dream, The Sheltering Sky by way of mescaline-laced Skittles.
So, after all this, am I recommending the film? Well, it really depends on how much you [a] prize visual invention over everything else and [b] can hang with a story pretty clearly pitched at pre-teens. (Having played and enjoyed F-Zero, Wipeout, or SSX will help too, I’d wager.) As I said above, however cotton-candy-thin and dumbed down the plot, I’d never seen a movie that looked like Speed Racer before, and that counts for something in my book. Whatever its faults as a film, I feel I saw something…quite new…last night, and as such I’m willing to forgive Speed Racer probably having too many notes. In any case, it’s definitely not as uniformly terrible as the press is making it out to be.