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.