Stop, Speed Racer, just fucking STOP.
Before I go any further, let me advise you that my opinion on movies like Speed Racer cannot be trusted, because I liked the first Matrix sequel. Admitting you like either of the sequels to The Matrix is sort of like admitting you like headcheese: you know there have to be other people out there who feel the same way, but you’re the only one foolish enough to say it. At some point when I was sitting in the theater watching The Matrix Reloaded, I thought “You know, I’m never going to understand all this nonsense about Sentinels and Keymakers and Merovingians, so I’m just going to shut my brain off and enjoy the sight of a couple of 18-wheelers spot-welding into each other on a freeway.” And it worked! It wasn’t a great movie by any definition, but it sure was fun to watch. For most other viewers, however, it was a huge disappointment to have spent $10 at the local octoplex to see a movie with a plot that seemed to have come from the bottom of a bong in the Wachowski Brothers’ basement.
If Speed Racer is any evidence, it would appear that Larry and Andy Wachowski have traded in their bongs for crystal meth and Red Bull. The best word I can come up with to describe the look, the pacing, and the style of this film is “frantic,” and by “frantic” I mean it feels like you’re stuck in a German disco that has far exceeded its legal capacity. Not only that, but you’ve pissed off the disco’s lighting guy, let’s call him Hans or Erich or Jurgen, so he’s taken it upon himself to engage every effect he has at his disposal, aiming them right into your face until you collapse in a twitching, foaming at the mouth heap. It’s what goes on inside the brain of a seven year-old after he’s eaten 39 Pixy Stix. It’s like riding Space Mountain on Ecstasy thirty times in a row. It’s like being beaten over the head with a kaleidoscope, and then run over by a fluorescent pink car driven by Willy Wonka and the PowerPuff Girls. Instead of offering medical assistance, a neon-trimmed ambulance arrives and releases a spider monkey that proceeds to blow toxic glitter in your eyes and then pelt you with Hot Wheels cars.
I’m going to assume that a live-action version of Speed Racer was a dream project of the Wachowskis since they were young children, since there doesn’t seem to be any other reason for it to exist. One of the earliest versions of anime brought to American television (the decision to say “thank you” or “fuck you” is entirely yours), Speed Racer the cartoon was about a lad of indeterminate age who races car. That’s it. That’s all he did. He was invariably good, his rivals were invariably bad, and he defeated them every time. By the time even the kids of my generation started watching it, the low-quality animation and decidedly repetitious plots (every time the mysterious Racer X would appear on-screen, the narrator would helpfully remind us that he “might possibly be Speed’s long-lost brother Rex”) rendered it more something you left running in the background while you did other things, rather than specifically setting out to watch it. The last time it was culturally relevant was in 1992, when minor techno group Alpha Team created an underground club hit by setting the theme song to a pounding dance beat and editing the dialogue, including Speed’s curious little outbursts (“uh!” “aah!”), so that it sounded like he was having sex with his loyal assistant/occasional girlfriend Trixie. It was also used to great effect in a Geico commercial, and parodied on an episode of the brilliant Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. That being said, I have a little bit of trouble believing that America was demanding a live-action, two hour plus version of a cartoon with a plot that could be described in three words: he races cars.
Then again, I never thought America demanded a film version of Alvin and the Chipmunks, or that Tim Allen continues to find work, or that there be television shows featuring has-been celebrities learning how to cha cha, so clearly I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Larry and Andy walked into Warner Bros. studios one day, announced “We want to make a version of Speed Racer, and it will cost a lot of money,” to which they were presented with one of those giant checks that people get when they win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes. What several hundred million dollars buys is chaos and noise constructed with the deft hand of a gorilla, based upon a plot that somehow manages to be both as flimsy as a FEMA trailer and completely, utterly incomprehensible.
The film opens with a flashback, of which there are legion, and of which few actually help to move the plot along, that establishes Speed as a young boy obsessed with auto racing and devoted to his older brother, budding racing legend Rex. Speed’s father, Pops Racer (played by John Goodman) designs and builds custom racing vehicles, while Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon, in a “Halle Berry as Catwoman“-level casting decision) does little else but smile sweetly and occasionally wince and cry a little in concern. Speed’s world is turned upside down one day when Rex abruptly leaves home and becomes a dirty racer, using illegal tactics to defeat his competitors. Why does he do this? Well, mulling over some of the excruciating dialogue that comes later in the film may possibly offer an explanation, but one is never really given specifically. Rex is believed to have been killed in a racing accident, and though the Racer family is devastated, young Speed is still groomed to take his place. He grows up to become Emile Hirsch, last seen in the critically acclaimed Into the Wild, a movie that did not likely produce nearly as many action figures as Speed Racer will (“Get the new Chris McCandless doll with real emaciated action!”). Speed is a blandly likable young chap on his way to stardom in the world of high-tech auto racing, thanks to Pops, Pops’ dimwitted but good-hearted mechanic Sparky, and Trixie, Speed’s childhood pal turned assistant/girlfriend, played by Christina Ricci, who with a sharply angular haircut disconcertingly resembles a human praying mantis. They all apparently live in the same house, though it would appear that Speed and Trixie have yet to even share a first kiss, along with Mom Racer, Speed’s younger brother Spriedle, and Spriedle’s pet chimpanzee, Chim Chim.
Let me reserve a separate paragraph to say a few words about the character of Spriedle, and no, those words aren’t going to be “What the hell kind of name is Spriedle?” though I do wonder that. Spriedle, as most younger siblings on TV and in movies, is meant mostly to serve as a mischievous yet well-meaning comic foil for the main character. In this version of Speed Racer, the character is so aggressively unlikable that you hope some plot twist will reveal him to actually be an evil midget working for the villain, so that someone can back over him with the Mach 5. Portrayed by Paulie Litt in an over the top manner that suggests while filming his mother was standing just off-set, staring intently at him while punching her fist into the palm of her other hand, Spriedle is one of the laziest, most clichéd plot devices in a script that is constructed entirely of lazy, clichéd plot devices. Making “who farted?” faces and speaking with the poise and comic timing of a 75 year-old Borscht Belt comedian, Spriedle’s numerous attempts at “helping” Speed by cracking obnoxious at adults and getting into places he doesn’t belong only create more chaos, and forces the viewer to remember that wishing grievous injury against a child is not, in fact, appropriate. He is also a rather portly lad, who of course is constantly hungry and will go to ridiculous means to acquire food, such as sneaking onto a private jet and going into near-orgasmic throes of delight over the candy stash hidden in it. Naturally, when next we see him he is laying on the floor in a near-sugar coma, with chocolate smeared all over his face. Comedy!
But back to the plot, such as it is. Speed is courted for corporate sponsorship by oily rich guy Royalton (Roger Allam) who claims to want to partner with Pops Racer. The scene in which the Racer Family is given a tour of Royalton’s factory is what would happen if Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Salvador Dali had all met for lunch and gotten completely wasted on NyQuil and paint thinner. Though initially dazzled by all that Royalton offers him, Speed must eventually decline the partnership deal, because it’s a Wachowski Brothers film, and the running theme in their films is what happens when the little man tries to hold onto his independence against the will of his corporate/political/robotic overlords. His decision infuriates Royalton, and, now aware that his family members are “targets” (for what is never explained), Speed decides to leave home, in a scene that is a virtual shot-for-shot recreation of when brother Rex left home earlier, and participate in the same race that supposedly killed Rex. This is at the behest of Inspector Detector, a character whose function in the plot I’ve yet to determine, and the mysterious Racer X (“who may possibly be Speed’s long-lost brother Rex!”), who speaks in the rough, gravelly “Mysterious Guy Voice,” similar to that of character actor Michael Wincott. Naturally, despite being nearly thwarted by competitors with cars that are rigged to launch oil, bubbles, and live beehives as defensive tactics, Speed and his partners win the race handily. You know, I’m trying to explain what happens, and I’m leaving out so much: the gang of bumbling thugs, the shady Japanese businessman and his hot-tempered son, the piranhas, the Vikings, the ninja assassins. Mostly it’s all useless fodder to get from one big race to the climactic competition, the Grand Prix, the action of which is described by a series of shrieking foreign sports reporters. Then again, little else about Speed Racer is set at a level anywhere below “shrieking,” so it’s appropriate.
If it hasn’t already, I suspect Speed Racer will cause some level of debate amongst its viewers as to what the Wachowskis were trying to do with it. Yes, I’m aware that they were trying to make it look like a cartoon, I’m not retarded. I fully admit to being impressed at how well they caught every little cartoon-like detail, right down to the hairstyles, the framing and the clichéd dialogue (“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!“ “No more Mr. Nice Guy!“ “If you walk out that door, don’t even think about coming back!“). They wanted to make a live-action cartoon, they succeeded, it’s Sin City for people who can’t handle seeing Bruce Willis rip off a pedophile’s penis. I’m sure that every little irritating detail of Speed Racer was deliberate, and perhaps my criticizing it just means that I don’t “get it.” However, at the most basic scriptwriting level, it’s lazy filmmaking. They knew way ahead of time that they were going to be making a cartoon, thus were able to immediately do away with strong dialogue, decent character development, and a plot that serves as more than just bantha fodder to fill in down time between action scenes, because hey, it‘s a cartoon, and how many cartoons do you know that give their characters any sort of real motivation for doing anything? Claiming this was all done on purpose is a convenient way to deflect criticism, sort of like when Joe Eszterhas later claimed that Showgirls was always meant to be a comedy.
So maybe I don’t “get it,” though I have enjoyed many other cartoon/comic books brought to real life. The previously mentioned Sin City was an excellent effort at bringing animation to live action, without inflicting some sort of psychotic Pink Floyd planetarium laser show on the audience. Perhaps one day, once my brain and my eyes have recovered, I’ll revisit Speed Racer and try to appreciate it on a purely aesthetic level, except I don’t think there’s a television powerful enough to handle all the lights, the colors and the noise without turning itself inside out and blinking out of existence. It’s an art project that eventually collapses under the weight of some very high-tech glitter, glue and popsicle sticks.