Arriving three years after the divisive V For Vendetta and five years after the final instalment of The Matrix Trilogy, The Wachowski Brothers wave their digital wand over Speed Racer, an adaptation of the late 60s anime. Speed, a natural driver born to race cars, inherits his deceased brother’s record-breaking legacy and, driving his father’s souped-up Mach 5, starts to take the racing world by storm.
Those who have seen the trailer will know the drill. This is a fast, loud, ruthlessly coloured exercise in pushing CGI to its absolute limit. Combine the superb visuals with a bombastic editing style, aggressive sound design and a rousing score by Lost composer Michael Giacchino, and you have one hell of an assault on the senses.
The Wachowskis start as they mean to go on, telling the famous story of Speed’s love of racing, the death of his brother, Rex, and his rise to stardom at a break-neck pace. The thrill of car racing is delivered in four outrageously frenetic sequences. Of course, we have seen high octane action like this nearly ten years ago now in The Phantom Menace, and the violent interaction of the cars hurtling down Speed’s track do bring to mind the dirty, mad-dash, metal-on-metal madness of Lucas’ podracing. But to be fair to The Wachowskis, they do give it their all.
Theirs is a Tarantinoesque world once removed from reality and given a fresh lick of multicoloured paint. The sky is a pure blue with perfectly formed clouds, parks are green and litter free, city skylines glitter with life and promise. It’s a living, breathing cartoon, and a universe of hugely impressive detail.
But the throttle can’t hide some of the engine problems. Andy and Larry, though undeniably talented, are seemingly, maddeningly incapable of bringing a film in under two hours. Far too much is going on here, with too many characters involved in too many sub-plots, and the film would have been a far smoother ride without such difficulty trying to keep up.
At two hours twenty minutes, attention spans will be tested, particularly around the middle (the central race at Casa Cristo should have been cut in half or excised altogether). The brothers are also guilty of unnecessary amounts of expositional dialogue that will not only send the youngsters to sleep but also unsettle older viewers with memories of The Architect in The Matrix Reloaded. Big business mogul and Big Bad Mr. Royalton, played with spittle-producing gusto by Vendetta’s Roger Allam, appears to replicate said Architect’s speech patterns through over-pronunciation in some of his horribly long monologues.
Yet, however overplayed, the good/evil dynamic does work, and provides Speed with the black and white foresight of right and wrong and the film with its moral compass. Love over money, family over greed; they’re not new messages, but at least they’re delivered with conviction. Indeed, there is, rather surprisingly, more to Speed Racer than the spectacle, and much of this has to do with the casting…
It’s refreshing to see such solid support from actors brought in and not underused. Parents John Goodman and Susan Sarandon provide convincing character moments and help ground the film in at least some form of reality. Speed’s commitment to his family informs his decision-making, and genuine emotion is summoned when the car is in the garage and the film changes gear.
Emile Hirsch, coming off Into The Wild, obviously has less to do here but holds the screen well. Matthew Fox, too, stepping out of Jack’s shadow and into the costume of rival driver Racer X, delivers a layered performance and a nicely timed twist. Best of all, however, is the excellent Paulie Litt as youngest brother and resident troublemaker Spritle. Playing off the family chimp, he is gifted with all the best lines but delivers each like a seasoned pro.
Smart dialogue and clever visual gags break up the action and keep the kids laughing, and even when the over-the-top fight scenes break out into manga sequences inspired by Spirtle’s love of cartoons, the changes work. Though contending with occasionally shallow content, the script provides enough humour, humanity and purring hummers to fit the ‘family film’ quota.
And, importantly, a family film is what the Wachowskis have made. Though overlong, confused and weighed down with an overabundance of characters and flashbacks, beyond the sheer velocity of the thing, what really surprises is that there’s actually something going on behind the wheel. It’s encouraging to see that, in a world of extreme Technicolor and fantastical design, the Wachowski Brothers have found some heart.
Check out Russell Clark’s review of Speed Racer here.