Tuesday 18 November 2008

Speed Racer (2008)

Tuesday 18 November 2008
Writers & Directors: Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski

A notable summer flop, Speed Racer is the Wachowski Brothers' follow-up to their blockbusting Matrix trilogy, based on another of their childhood passions: little-known Japanese kid's anime Mach GoGoGo, which aired on US television in the '60s as Speed Racer.

Emile Hirsch plays the eponymous Speed, motor-racing prodigy of the close-knit Racer family -- portly Pops (John Goodman), supportive Mom (Susan Sarandon), mischievous kid brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), childhood friend Trixie (Christina Ricci), their mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry) and pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim (a greasemonkey?)

After a family tragedy, where Speed's sibling Rex (Scott Porter) was killed in a racing accident, Speed has followed in his big brother's footsteps to become a driver of considerable talent. Indeed, his skill behind a wheel attracts the attention of E.P Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), CEO of corporate goliath Royalton Motors, who attempts to lure the Racer family into joining his world-class company in a megabucks deal. But does Royalton have the Racer family's best interests at heart? What do you think…

Okay, the storyline is undemanding fluff -- boiling down to notions of a literal mom n' pop business being threatened by a big, greedy, cheating corporation. Speed's loyalty to his family is tested, his naïve belief that racing's a fair sport are shattered, and the mystery of his brothers death (Rex's body was never found) fuels a minor subplot where Speed starts to suspect a masked driver called Racer X (Matthew Fox) might be more than he seems…

Speed Racer is far more interested in its visual cartwheels, though. Nearly ten years ago the Wachowski Brothers changed the face of action cinema with The Matrix, and this movie is a sugar-coated sting in the eyeballs for cartoon-y vehicular CGI stunts (branded "Car Fu".) The video-game inspired race courses meld Nintendo's Mario Kart with Playstation's Wipeout; a kaleidoscope of dizzying colours, lightning speed and psychedelic landscapes. Even away from the hectic races, the aesthetic carries a vibrancy to burn retinas, although the quality of the off-road effects sometimes waver from Star Wars prequel to Spy Kids sequel. For the most part, though, Speed Racer's a remarkably potent visual experience that drops you into a world where humans essentially live inside a Pixar cheese dream.

It will divide audiences, certainly. It's somewhat immature and rather silly of the Wachowski's to expect mass audiences to connect with the material as they did in their infancy. Outside of America and Japan, Speed Racer has an esoteric cult following -- at best. The low-watt celebrity pulling power of Hirsch, Goodman, Sarandon, Ricci and Fox were never going to attract crowds, while many people felt so stung by the Wachowski Brothers' derided Matrix sequels that they intentionally gave it a wide berth.

But, I give "The Brothers" credit for doing something different, yet comfortable and familiar at the same time. It's a bubblegum kid's flick with laudable, simple morals at heart, hung on the kind of hyperactive visuals the under-12s will chug down like Sunny D. The whole film resembles a child's imagination let loose on the world's craziest Scalextric track -- with black-clad ninjas, a comedy chimpanzee, and finger-chomping piranhas throw in.

It's far too long at 2 hours 25 minutes, but I wasn't bored at any stage. The cast are likeable, particularly John Goodman (no stranger to live-action cartoons after The Flintstones), Roger Allam sinks his teeth into the moustache-twirling villainy and never lets go (also note how the clever baddies are posh Englishmen, while hired goons are cockney ruffians), Hirsch's hero is bland but his archetype appealing, and Lost's Matthew Fox is surprisingly good-value as the gravel-voiced, ambivalent Racer X. Less interesting are Susan Sarandon (token mom role), Paulie Litt (chubby kid comic relief) and walking anime illustration Christina Ricci (moon-faced, saucer-eyed girlfriend with a silly "cool beans" catchphrase.)

You get what you expect with Speed Racer -- a frenetic, colourful, madcap, extraordinary assault on the senses. It's the cinematic equivalent of a jumbo bag of Haribo: sweet, rubbery, chewy, and likely to make a few people sick. Still, it's not cynical or overcomplicated for young minds who just want a sugar-hit, while parents will chuckle at a few gags (the finger-hole in the piranha tank), commend the moral at its centre (trust in your family), and probably find themselves gawping at the shining eye-candy themselves.

Overall, I can understand why this didn't find an audience, and why many will consider it a vacuous headache, but it succeeds in its own limited ambition to be a well-meaning slice of escapist action. I certainly had fun watching it, and I know it'll keep any noisy kids quiet for a few hours. You'll just to have put up with the subsequent hours of them screeching around the house making engine noises. Or else insist on a double-bill with The Golden Compass -- for every upper, a downer.

Warner Brothers
Budget: $120 million
135 minutes

Cast: Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer), John Goodman (Pops Racer), Susan Sarandon (Mom Racer), Matthew Fox (Racer X), Roger Allam (E.P Arnold Royalton), Scott Porter (Rex Racer), Paulie Litt (Spritle Racer), Kick Gurry (Sparky), Richard Roundtree (Ben Burns) Nayo Wallace (Minx), Benno Fürmann (Inspector Detector), Rain (Taejo Togokahn), Hiroyuki Sanada (Mr. Musha), John Benfield (Cruncher Block), Ralph Herforth (Jack "Cannonball" Taylor), Nicholas Elia (Young Speed), Ariel Winter (Young Trixie), Christian Oliver (Snake Oiler), Jana Pallaske (Delila), Werner Daehn (Colonel Colon), Moritz Bleibtreu (Grey Ghost), Milka Duno (Gearbox), Joe Mazza (Nitro Venderhoss), & Melvil Poupaud (Johnny "Goodboy" Jones)