After giving Iron Man a pass, critics generally seem to have knives out for Speed Racer, despite the fact that Speed boasts the most radical visual strategies seen in a movie theater since Sin City, and maybe longer. Yes, of course “unconventional” is not equivalent to “excellent” or even “interesting,” and I guess I can understand why you might not want to let the Wachowskis play your optic nerve like a Jew’s harp for more than two hours in a sitting. But, man, if you value a little razzle with your dazzle, this one delivers a lot more of that stuff than, say, Iron Man.
The big difference between Speed Racer and Iron Man is that Speed is barely concerned with character and performance, though I’d say its story is a little more satisfying. The young, aptly named Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) comes from a racing dynasty whose good name was tarnished in a scandal involving his older brother Rex Racer, a racing legend. After turning down a lucrative sponsorship offer from Royalton Industries, the idealistic young Speed is shocked to learn that racing is fixed. Large cash payments, not talent, determine the winner of each year’s Grand Prix — skills, balls, and anybody’s fresh-faced enthusiasm be damned — and Royalton intends to make Speed pay for his naivete. At the same time, Speed sets out to liberate the sport from the strictures of corporate sponsorship.
There’s more, mainly involving the mysterious masked Racer X, but you get the idea. I’ve seen some cavils that it’s ludicrous for the Wachowskis to make a movie for Time Warner that criticizes the machinations of big corporations, but there’s a reason people like the Wachowskis get into the movie business in the first place — sure, there’s a lot of greed, corruption and heartbreak in it, but it’s also a place where, against the odds, misfits and geniuses occasionally get handed huge sums of money to express themselves in profound ways. (In other words, sometimes Warner Bros. manages to release The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. More often it shits out something like Fools’ Gold or The Bucket List.) Just because a filmmaker decides to avail themselves of that kind of opportunity — millions to be grabbed, your only competition idiots — that’s no reason they shouldn’t be allowed to complain about the more poisonous kind of corporate influence.
Anyway, the Wachowskis are technology junkies, and that kind of nerd needs to align itself with corporate interests every once in a while just to find spiritual fulfillment. Speed Racer‘s actors were shot in HD, mainly on green-screen sets where detailed, deep-focus backgrounds could be painted behind them later on. The result is occasionally jarring — at least on the big Imax screen, where it’s a little too easy to make out the subtle differences in texture between the live-action photography and the static backgrounds — but once I got past scrutinizing the detail inside each frame, desperately trying to assess the narrative possibilities of this latest experiment, my movie-viewing experience settled into a surprisingly comfortable groove.
Hirsch and Christina Ricci (as Speed’s highly competent girlfriend, Trixie) were apparently cast in large part because they resemble anime characters — especially Ricci, whose big eyes and Lulu bob combine here with a preternatural perkiness to synthesize a videogame nerd’s idea of a sex symbol. Their roles aren’t especially demanding in the what’s-my-motivation department, but the performances in Speed Racer have a surprising liveliness considering the amount of VFX work that was added in later — compare Hirsch and Ricci’s presence here to the uncompromisingly wooden turns of similarly winning actors like Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor in the recent Star Wars trilogy. At least they — like John Goodman, slipping easily into all-American dad mode, and the strong-jawed Matthew Fox as Racer X — seem to be having a good time. (I could have done without the scenes in which Speed’s allegedly precocious younger brother Spritle and companion chimp Chim-Chim cavort through the proceedings — they’re near-random non sequiturs, sometimes undercranked to Benny Hill speeds — but I understand they’re part of this particularly territory, and they do help the film maintain a level of lowbrow integrity that I found somewhat admirable.)
But all that is subordinated, sooner or later, to the film’s visuals. Speed Racer represents probably the first time that film has thoroughly processed and repurposed the essence of visual style in videogames. The way the film’s race cars rocket and drift, arcade-style, around deeply curved, neon-colored tracks is directly suggestive of the hit PlayStation franchise Wipeout; I thought I also recognized the influence of Beetle Adventure Racing for the Nintendo 64, but maybe that’s just the videogame nerd in me talking. But also important to the spectacle is the film’s vertiginous camera moves, the point of view whipping and spinning around objects in flight and at ground level with little more concern for logic than might be exhibited by your thumb playing and pressing frantically against the control nub on a gamepad.
I’m not a big fan of the ostentatiously virtual camera (Fincher’s famous move through the coffee-pot handle at the beginning of Panic Room left me nonplussed) but this is different, somehow, for being so thoughtfully choreographed. The dance between the camera and the (often virtual) objects in each frame is part of the storytelling, but it’s also an end to itself — an occasionally breathtaking grace note in a symphonic blast of action. There’s a mischievous moment when, as Speed
careens headlong down one track, you can see a series of images on the
wall next to his car. They are sequential images of a galloping
horse zebra, seen through the window of Speed’s cockpit flashing by at 24 frames a
second, animating themselves in the fashion of Eadweard Muybridge’s
famous zoopraxiscope–the first movie, and a symbol of the rebirth of
the form that the Wachowskis clearly mean to induce here.
Making matters even more exhilarating (or stupefying, depending on your point of view) is the Wachowskis’ bringing some ideas about martial-arts choreography to bear on the racing scenes, which they apparently dubbed “car fu.” (To my surprise, this term seems to actually have some lineage that predates the Speed Racer press kit.) And so the film’s high-velocity racing scenes involve cars that leap into the air, tumbling sideways overhead, that go on the attack with intricate hidden weapons, that lock themselves in precariously balanced combat positions as they blast their way down the track.
Speed Racer just gets better — more cool, frenetic, and spectacular — up until its gooseflesh-inducing climax, when the Wachowskis’ fantasy world erupts into a blinking, fragmented swarm of borderline non-representational imagery that coalesces around Speed’s final, against-the-odds victory, representing the ecstatic liberation of sport from the corrupt influence of moneyed interests. And, because other characters refer to Speed repeatedly as an artist, not just a race driver, you can read the film as the Wachowski’s exhortation and celebration of any creative mind that manages to wrestle from the corporate Hollywood machine something as tasty and expressive and, frankly, personal as I suspect Speed Racer to be. Speed Racer might be a flight of chewy, sugary fancy, but I think the Wachowskis are dead serious about about at least this portion of their exercise — the visual reference here to the cosmic, consciousness-raising trip at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey is almost explicit. If the idea of the flashy, noisy action blockbuster as art film has any currency, Speed Racer should be exhibit A. B+