'Speed Racer' Is Stuck on A Fast Track To Nowhere

Man, where's a red flag when you need one? The bloated big-screen "Racer" is an accident that shouldn't have happened.
Man, where's a red flag when you need one? The bloated big-screen "Racer" is an accident that shouldn't have happened. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

Larry and Andy Wachowski lay it on thick in "Speed Racer," a jangled, densely layered, narratively scrambled blob of moviemaking that will leave viewers alternately baffled and sensorially stunned.

This frenetic adaptation of the beloved 1960s Japanese cartoon bears little resemblance to that anime classic of yore, unless you count Christina Ricci's saucerlike brown eyes. Here, the filmmakers take more of their cues from Googie architecture, video games and their own hyper-stylized visual grammar, perfected in the "Matrix" movies.

Things get off to a discombobulated start, with a blurringly fast car race sequence that morphs into a flashback, then back again, in a whirling vortex of dreary exposition and incoherent action. We meet the title character as a young boy, daydreaming about his idolized older brother Rex, whose decline and death are telegraphed in shards of barking, ham-fisted narrative.

As "Speed Racer" toggles to the present day -- or its futuristic version -- it becomes clear that Speed has grown into a young adult, and is in the process of winning a big race in front of his adoring family: Mom and Pops Racer (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman), little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and the family's pet chimpanzee.

The next day, Speed (Emile Hirsch) and his family answer the door to a wealthy sponsor named Royalton (Roger Allam), who proceeds to take the Racers on a Willy Wonka-like tour of his fabulous facilities. For the rest of the movie, "Speed Racer" centers on whether the wholesome, down-to-earth Speed will resist Royalton's blandishments and, if he does, whether he can win the sport of car racing back from the crooks and corporate types who have taken it over.

That sounds simple enough, but the Wachowskis manage to take a straightforward origin narrative and cram every possible back story, subplot, action beat and non sequitur into a film whose running time exceeds even an unforgivable two hours. Why, for example, the protracted sequence involving Mom Racer's pancakes in the film's initial scene with Royalton? Or the endless tutorial on "the unassailable might of money" that Royalton delivers to a disbelieving Speed midway through the movie? Why the constant flashbacks and montages? And is that Boy George behind the wheel of Cruncher Block's truck?

Those are probably the wrong questions to ask of a movie that is meant to explode like a candy-colored bomb on the screen, whiplashing viewers through an electric Kool-Aid acid trip of retro-futuristic backdrops, strobe-lit cityscapes and race sequences that resemble "Cars" fueled by a cocktail of steroids and Red Bull. The Wachowski house style has always pushed the boundaries that separate animation and live action, often to striking effect.

In "Speed Racer," their insistent visual style is hit-and-miss, occasionally creating moments of surprising beauty (like the flowers that come into bloom during a love scene, or the animated zebras that run alongside a racetrack), but more often resulting in a disorienting wash of images that finally collapses into an indistinguishable blur.

When Speed and his team do battle with Royalton's henchmen, scenes that should burst with slapstick spontaneity instead possess the crabbed, metronomic quality of something that's been rehearsed again and again in front of a green screen. You can almost see the wax penciled note: "Insert cool stuff here." (The cool stuff, by the way, will be familiar to fans of the original cartoon: tire shanks, slime throwers, smoke bombs and other gadgets make cameo appearances by way of Speed's nefarious opponents.)

So devoted are the filmmakers to blowing viewers away with pure style that such elements as character and performance seem like quaint artifacts of another age. Hirsch, fresh from his breakout performance in last year's "Into the Wild," barely registers as the title character, who seldom utters a word for the first half-hour of the movie. But Hirsch's decision to underplay is probably a wise one within such a complicated skein of filial betrayal, corporate malfeasance, criminal corruption, splinter groups of criminally corrupt corporate malefactors and races that play out on an endless strobe-lit loop. Speed's little brother and his pet chimp provide nothing by way of comic relief, and Ricci, as Speed's spirited girlfriend Trixie, is woefully underused.

Even more puzzling is the profanity that suffuses "Speed Racer," which is being billed as the first big family blockbuster of the summer. As hard as it is to imagine youngsters sitting through a confusing mishmash of windy speeches and monotonous car races, it's even more difficult to think that parents will find it charming when Spritle flips someone the bird.

Aside from the chance for parents to indulge in a nostalgia trip with their unsuspecting kids, "Speed Racer" does feature two genuine performances: Allam, as the villain Royalton, looks as if he should be doing Tom Stoppard plays in the West End, even as he reiterates the tired meme of corporate-equals-evil. And "Lost's" Matthew Fox (what a voice!) nails the mysterious character of Racer X.

But when Fox stars in yet another of "Speed Racer's" montage flashbacks, even the most jacked-up adrenaline junkies in the audience will no doubt share the same unspoken wish: Go, "Speed Racer." G o.

Speed Racer (129 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for sequences of action, violence, profanity and brief smoking.

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