Thursday, June 12, 2008

Speed Racer

I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project, and I enjoyed Speed Racer.

I enjoyed Speed Racer, but you might not.

This is not your typical Hollywood almost-but-not-quite. This is a movie filled with real genius. It's clever, it's innovative, and it's driven by a totally lucid vision which remains uncompromised from first reel to last.

It's also heir to all the faults of its source material, including wafer-thin supporting characters, an aggressively child-friendly tone, and a tendency towards wince-inducing slapstick.

Speed Racer is wonderful, and it is awful, and its magic is that those two things don't cancel each other out but instead stand face to face, equally proud and locked in a kind of apocalyptic showdown.

This is a film directed by the Wachowski Brothers, and it's got the same kind of bipolar blues as their work on The Matrix Reloaded. One minute it's reminding you why you loved being eight years old, and the next it's making you glad you've grown up. It's based on the Japanese animated series of the same name, and it's hard to say that the movie isn't true to its roots.

Emile Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown) plays Speed Racer, a talented race driver on the speedways of a futuristic Earth. Haunted by the legacy of his deceased brother Rex, and targeted by an evil mega-corporation for elimination, Speed fights for the safety of his family through a series of increasingly high-stakes races.

Hirsch is competent as Speed Racer, but the show is stolen by John Goodman (Roseanne, The West Wing) as Speed's father, with a reasonably entertaining Christina Ricci (Sleepy Hollow) in the role of Trixie. Matthew Fox (Lost) struggles manfully to keep a straight face playing the enigmatic Racer X.

If Speed Racer had claimed to be based on a prominent racing videogame, I would have said it was the greatest game adaptation ever made. The movie shamelessly models its racetrack aesthetic on the best of history's high-tech racers; when you see the swooping midair courses festooned with cliffhanger drops and death-defying jumps you'll swear that you're watching F-Zero or Wipeout. Everything that makes those games awesome is on screen, and the car-related shenanigans displayed here cheerfully spend two hours kicking the laws of physics in the goolies in the most entertaining way you can possibly imagine.

The film is visually amazing. The special effects are very strong, and the Wachowskis make use of a layering technique which results not only in individual scenes being heavily composited, but in multiple scenes being stacked over each other. Action in one location can happen in the foreground while events elsewhere play out in the background; wipe transitions are accompanied by speaking characters sliding across the screen; televisions and mirrors frequently allow narratives to collide.

This layered style is bold, unique, and mostly successful. It gives the movie a sense of keen immediacy, which is backed up by a non-sequential narrative which slides back and forth between relatively slow backstory and thrilling race scenes.

By the way, if you're hoping that the movie will feature the classic Speed Racer theme, rest assured that it's here in spades, reworked through a score by composer Michael Giacchino (Lost, Cloverfield).

The movie's biggest problem is that it doesn't know who it's aiming at. The tone is built from the ground up to be suitable for pre-teens, which admittedly brings it into line with the original cartoon. However, only those old enough to remember watching on TV are going to appreciate what the Wachowskis are aiming for here, and they'll probably be put off by elements like a dung-flinging chimpanzee and a candy-obsessed fat kid.

Speed Racer isn't a love it or hate it movie. It's a hate it or enjoy it movie. It's got a lot of charm, backed by the kind of thrilling climax that you'd expect from the Wachowskis. It's also got a lot of problems. All I can say is that if you go in expecting nothing, you'll probably come out grinning from ear to ear.

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