DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: SPEED RACER

Thursday 22 May 2008


Speed Racer (2008) dir. The Wachowski Bros.
Starring: Emil Hirsch, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon


I went into “Speed Racer” with an extremely open mind. Sure the trailer sucked, and sure the box office was way below expectations, but considering the filmmaking team, those odd-birds, “The Wachowski Bros”, there would be some redeeming quality or something new and exciting we haven’t seen before. Unfortunately it’s as big a conceptual misfire as the box office and critical collective have proclaimed it and a dismal disappointing film to watch, even with low expectations.

Granted the film starts out with a neat sequence, the main character Speed (Emil Hirsch) mentally preparing for his big race – the one in which his big brother idol still holds the race record. During the preparations, the film goes through an elaborate flashback to Speed as a child and what brought him to this specific time and place. We learn of his superstar older brother Rex (Scott Porter) who became a racing legend, before quitting the grand prix circuit to ride in a dangerous cross-country rally circuit. But at the height of his career Rex died tragically in the championship rally race and Speed is about to fulfill the racing promise his brother never could.

After the race Speed is courted by a slimy corporate slickster Royalton (Roger Allam) who promises to make Speed a star if he joins his team. Speed’s father (John Goodman) and longtime mechanic who loathes the corporate attitude is against the proposal. Speed soon finds out it’s no-win proposal when Royalton reveals to Speed that the Grand Prix is actually a contrived set-up with the winners already determined. Speed therefore goes off on his own, competes in the same Rally as his brother, and eventually makes it back onto the Grand Prix circuit where he hopes to break its dubious legacy.

The Wachowskis have great intentions to move past the uber-seriousness of "The Matrix Trilogy," "V For Vendetta", and even “Bound” and make a light kids film. The plain truth is the talented brotherly duo have their strengths, but humour is not one of them. Every gag becomes a painful attempt at humiliating slapstick and silliness - humilating for both the actors and the directors. The Wachowskis even have their Jar Jar Binks in the character of Chim Chim the family Chimp. The chimp is best pals with Speed’s younger annoying brother Spritle (Paulie Litt). Spritle and Chim Chim are the comic relief as the Bros give their characters a lengthy subplot of comic hijinx. It's all really really painful.

Stylistically the film is all about colour. The races are neon-porn to the maximum. Their innovative colour laying technique is indeed thrilling to watch in spurts, but its a constant bombardment that we eventually take for granted. They also throw out all semblance of real world physics from the races. These scenes become a mushy mélange of colour, light and swishing movements with no discernable geography or orientation. The cars move fast, really fast, but the spin and turn and jump at will and when they eventually crash and burn, it’s seems a matter of convenience to progress the story.

The Wachowskis impressively craft a series of elaborate overlapping transitions. Even ordinary two-character conversations are dissolved and overlapped like an I-Pod commercial. Like a kid with a new toy, the technique gets old fast because they use it over and over again. Note: Francis Coppola has been doing this for years, and always organically (see “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” or “One From the Heart”). And when the characters’ heads are n't floating around and wiping through the edits, to keep things edgy and cool, the Wachowski’s thrown in the ubiquitous profile close-up.

“Speed Racer” is a beat down of the senses aurally and visually and a complete misfire starting with the concept. The Wachowskis have never had an ear for comedy, in fact, I can’t remember a single comic scene in any of their other films, and so “Speed Racer” is akin to “Woody Allen” directing “The Dark Knight”. Woody would never go there, and neither should The Wachowskis – ever again.


Anil Usumezbas said...

I think Woody has been there with Match Point, but I still get your point :)

As for Speed Racer, I was sad to see it disappointed you too. I was still holding my expectations but the points you mentioned are the kinds of things that would distance me from a movie as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the world was ready for a Speed Racer revival
Quality or no :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Alan! Glad to see your thoughts on Speed Racer, but I'm a bit let down by your very negative opinion. I think you had become far too biased by the time you went into this and that in the end hurt your experience.

You mention that the races scenes all "become a mushy mélange of colour, light and swishing movements with no discernable geography or orientation." While I'm not going to argue with you for the Grand Prix, what about the Casa Cristo race? There were some scenes in there that I felt really used the geography to a unique advantage, not in the typical way. It's hard to think that people really found no enjoyment out of this film, even in the slightest, or even for one race.

I really think you're over-analyzying Speed Racer by calling it a misfire from the concept. The concept was brilliant, their execution and script, possibly, were the problems. Over the last few weeks, thinking in depth about Speed Racer, I realized their real problem was the attempt to make it a family film versus what The Wachowskis intentions seemed to be. The fact that they were forced to include both cheesy children's comedy and adult dialogue in scenes like when Royalton and Speed were arguing is what really brought this down. If they would've stuck with one or the other, I think they would have succeeded on the whole. The concept really was not the problem here...

Alan Bacchus said...

Hey Alex,
Thanks for your comment. Believe me, I really really wanted to like the film. I didn't read any reviews before seeing the film. I only knew that the critical consensus was not good. If I went into it, anticipating not liking it I wouldn't have gone, or at least waited for video. I love the Wachowski Bros - in fact, I'm about the only one that thought Matrix Reloaded was the best of the the Matrix trilogy.

As far as concept - I guess I wasn't clear about what the concept is. And I think it's as you describe - a Cheesy Family film with Adult dialogue.

You're right, the Casa Cristo had some good moments. But what I meant by geography was not 'the location', but the ability for the audience to discern where the other racers are in relation to the other. This was the best race in the film though.

I really am glad people are liking the film, because I want the Wachowskis to keep pushing the edge of cinema.