The key, perhaps, lies in what end of the scale you find more qualifying. For two long and difficult hours, we are dragged through countless contrived plot scenarios in which one of three things happen: 1) characters argue in broad and colorful exchanges over the importance of family and the dangers of fame; 2) characters argue with corporate fascists over the integrity of a sport; and 3) characters get behind the wheel of a race car and speed through miles and miles of terrain for the sake of winning a race and proving the family and the corporate fascists all wrong in one fell swoop. The difference between “Speed Racer” and all those other mindless racing flicks, though? Never before has it all looked this good, felt this powerful, and been delivered at this high a pitch of visual ecstasy. By the time the final speck of light has flickered from the screen, our very senses have been so nourished beyond comprehension that, yes, we would gladly slog our way through all the idiocy of the premise again and again for it. The movie can’t ever be recommended on the basis that it is even passable entertainment, but I suppose enduring a little trash in order to reach full visual satisfaction never hurt anyone.
Now about the trash itself – it’s almost tragically bad. Devised with all the inspiration and charm of a Bowflex infomercial, the screenplay rips and roars its way furiously across the screen, trying very hard to come across as something either mighty or mischievous when all it is really doing is talking a big game without actually supplying us with anything noteworthy. There are shouting matches, long-winded dialogue exchanges and corny one-liners galore here (“I go to the race track to watch you make art”), all packaged in a conveniently silly manner as to assume that it cannot take itself very seriously in the first place. Unfortunately, even by tongue-in-cheek standards, the attempt is a colossal, disjointed disaster, filled to the brim with characters with no distinguishing characteristics other than their names, plot situations that are both cartoonish and pedestrian, and a focus so all over the map that audiences have difficulty in keeping up with what the heck is even going on.
Of course, by the time anyone realizes just how incoherent it all is, we’ve already been assaulted by the special effects. Oh, and what special effects they are! Colorful, sweeping, multi-faceted and practically pulsating with gusto, they bounce at you not as if they are visuals meant to be seen as real, but as visuals that genuinely know and admire the fact that they are artificial. In that sense, the technical wizards and cameras have great fun playing with this notion, capturing the movie’s characters and their story arcs in a landscape populated by fluorescent skylines and expansive locales. As the background enthralls us to an utter extreme, the foreground intricacies weave nearly as much magic – in a movie primarily about quirky racers competing for, well, survival of the sport, the vessels they use seem to exist somewhere between the visual style of “Tron” and that of “Blade Runner.” Are these cars, or are they more than that? Some of them, after all, do more than just speed; sometimes they fly, sometimes they dodge projectile attacks, other times they can scale cliff-sides using armored tires. The movie challenges even the most basic of fundamental physics laws, having so much fun in doing so that none of us really care about logistics.
There is a story in here somewhere, or at least I think there might be. The movie is about Speed (Emile Hirsch), a young avid racing fan who, born and raised in a family of racing enthusiasts, idolized his oldest brother Rex for being one of the most popular figures in the modern racing world, long before he left home under mysterious circumstances and then died while competing in a dangerous off-course race. Years later, Speed still loves racing just as much as he did then, only now his love of the game has, too, turned him into a fierce competitor – as the movie opens, his loving family sits patiently back and watches as he outpaces nearly all of his peers, flying so briskly through an intricate and winding race course that it wows even the broadcast announcers. So impressive is his skill, in fact, that it gains the attention of Royalton (Roger Allam), a corporate CEO who is willing to use every ounce of charm and charisma in his arsenal in order to lure the driver out of independence and into a sponsorship deal with Royalton Industries. If he accepts the offer, Speed will all but be guaranteed entry into the highly coveted Grand Prix tournament – if he declines, Royalton will do everything in his power to ensure that the young fool is crushed in the sport long before he even has the chance to make it far.
And so comes two hours of endless and joyless plot contrivance involving fast racing, romantic interludes, conspiracies, family arguments self-reflection and half-a-dozen pointless montage sequences, presented not in a manner that emphasizes care for any of these things, but rather mere tolerance for them as plot essentials. By enlisting big-name talents like John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and Christina Ricci as the leads, the studio has created the impression that their efforts are more than just about style or flair for the possibilities of modern Hollywood technology. How misleading. Fortunately for all of them, they are never given an opportunity to step into a situation that would totally embarrass them as serious actors; no, those moments are saved more for the minor stars like Roger Allam, whose corporate thug Royalton is such an over-the-top blowhard that he doesn’t so much shout his diatribes as much as spits them into everyone’s faces. Others, like a mysterious masked driver played by Matthew Fox, are reduced to background players, perhaps because they are not important enough to warrant attention, or perhaps because the writers have enough pity for them to not allow them to be entirely sucked into the vortex of narrative emptiness.
The movie was directed by the Wachowski Brothers, the same men who gave us the “Matrix” trilogy and “V for Vendetta.” In keeping with the tradition of being full-fledged science fiction connoisseurs, they have taken even the lamest of concepts and have given it a spin that isn’t just stunning on the eyes, but also rather innovative and visionary. Perhaps the saving grace of their approach is the fact that the can allow themselves to feel so inspired by such lame material to begin with; even though they are working with a screenplay with almost nothing going for it, they make darn sure that the experience, however ridiculous, is going to be quite dazzling on the eyes all the way throughout. Yet what amazed me most, as I was sitting there and watching “Speed Racer” unfold in all its lavish badness, was that I found myself actually abandoning the urge to play the cynic with this project. It would be so easy to sit here and review the movie based on the notion that it fails miserably on almost every possible cylinder as a story and character study, but that would also mean sacrificing the opportunity to say just how enthusiastic I am about the vibrant presentation. It is a challenging situation to be in, but the tug-of-war between being a film buff and a man searching for mindless escapism is a joy in itself. “Speed Racer” may be dumb and rotten to the very core, but it’s also utterly stunning on the eyes, and that is a notion that even the most hardcore pessimists cannot overlook.
Action/Comedy (US); 2008; Rated PG-13 for sequences of action, some violence and language; Running Time: 129 Minutes
Emile Hirsch: Speed
Susan Sarandon: Mom
Scott Porter: Rex
Kick Gurry: Sparky
Christian Oliver: Snake Oiler
John Goodman: Pops
Paulie Litt: Spritle
Christina Ricci: Trixie
Matthew Fox: Racer X
Roger Allam: Royalton
Produced by Bruce Berman,Grant Hill, Michael Lambert, Roberto Malerba, Henning Molfenter, David Lane Seltzer, Joel Silver, Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski and Charlie Woebcken; Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski; based on the animated series “Speed Racer” by Tatsuo Yoshida