Friday, September 26, 2008

Go Speed Racer, Go!

We need to have a self-indulgence intervention for anyone who made successful trilogy. Peter Jackson inflicted a 3+ hour remake of King Kong on us, and now the Wachowski Brothers have turned a simplistic '60s cartoon into a 135 minute candy-colored epic in dire need of a date with the cutting room floor. It's enjoyable, and I regret not seeing its fantastic visuals in IMAX, but after 2 hours of eye candy, I feel like Chim-Chim and Spritle after eating that box of sweets. Too much of a good thing.

For a long movie, Speed Racer's story is simple- young boy Speed (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild) grows up idolizing his brother Rex, a pro racer who dies digraced in a crash in a road rally. He follows his footsteps, with daddy Pops Racer (John Goodman channeling Mario) building designing the Mach 5, a bizarro supercar originally based on the Ford GT40. These cars are from the cartoon world and have futuro power plants, rocket boosters, and can flip and bounce around like pinballs; fitting, as the race tracks inhabit a neon and chrome pinball world where the winner is the last unexploded car. It's a lot of fun to watch, and they set it up well by giving us that familiar primary color palette from Dick Tracy, and a suburbia with garish chrome and pink concept cars in every driveway.



Speed grows up with his only friend Trixie (Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan) defending him from the bullies who want to beat him up because his brother races dirty. All he cares about are cars and befitting his name, he has a short attention span. Thankfully for us, Ritalin is unprescribed in this world, and he becomes a young contender in the racing circuit. As his talent emerges, a billionaire race team owner named Royalton comes to recruit him. Played with pompous oily zest by Roger Allam, he tries to lure young Speed with riches and glory. When Speed finds out that the big races are all fixed, he of course rejects Royalton's offer, even though it means the overlords of racing will drag his family name through the mud.

The only man who fights the corrupt racing moguls is the shadowy figure known only as Racer X (Matthew Fox, Jackoff from "Lost"). A stony, stubbly mannequin in a black, X-emblazoned racing suit, he saves drivers from torture by crime bosses when they refuse to fix races. One of the best scenes of the movie is X's intro, when he comes to the rescue of a driver about to have his drivin' hands fed to piranhas in a mobster's fish tank. In the back of a luxury semi trailer, of course. It's too bad everything in Speed's world wasn't vehicular; restaurants all drive-thrus, RVs for homes. They took a step toward this at Royalton's Willie Wonka car factory, where everyone rides Segways and their jobs seem to consist of driving them around a circular building on colored lines.

Racer X also saves Speed's butt from the racing cartels, and Inspector Detector asks him to fight for the good guys. One of the pressured racers will spill the beans on Royalton if he can win one last race to clear his family name; it ends up being the same road rally where Rex died in a fiery crash, and Pops refuses. And of course Speed does it anyway, adding defensive gadgets to the Mach 5, like buzzsaws under the chassis to duel against the dirty racer's tire spikes.

The movie is really about the races and the colorful drivers, and the increasingly intricate tracks. My favorite is the road rally in the middle of the interminably long film, where three bribed racing teams try to take out Speed's trio. The Flying Foxes, two gals in pink cars; a gang of Vikings whose vehicles are festooned with morningstars and Thorian hammers, and Snake Oil, the whiny guy the cartels have fixed to win, who likes to fling rattlesnakes into other people's cars. This ridiculous race is great fun to watch, and the pinball physics as the cars bounce around is quite amusing. However, as another reviewer noted, it's still not as exciting as the only good thing that came out of The Phantom Menace, that being the pod race. The Wachowskis have great visual style, but they aren't that good at exciting chase scenes.

The movie must have been fantastic in IMAX, if you fell asleep for half of it. They use imaginative wipes, with character's faces, other obvious objects, and so on. This is cute once in a while, but it happens every few minutes and we begin to expect it. Chim Chim and Spritle are painfully annoying, and we find out that the idea of a monkey throwing poo is a lot funnier than actually seeing it happen. John Goodman is fun as Pops in one scene where they are attacked by ninjas, but is mostly wasted; he should have gone back to his Raising Arizon days. Christina Ricci sets the right tone, and Hirsch plays Speed's single-minded character well, but Fox and Goodman play it too flat. They don't realize they're in a cartoon.

Some of the visual playfulness, most notably the huge throwbacks to the original cartoon, are out of place and annoying. I liked the race scenes with the crazy lensflares and flashing colors, but did we need to see Spritle and Chim-Chim attack bad guys with the signature low-budget speed-line backgrounds they used in the '60s? It ruins the pacing of an otherwise enjoyable fight between the thugs and the race team. The film's fatal flaw is its enormous, indulgent running time. Like Jackson's King Kong, which took a 100 minute story and dragged it to over three hours, the Wachowski's take a beloved childhood object of nostalgia that worked well at 30 minutes (minus commercials) and make it intolerably long. The scenes drag on, and there's a long drag between the race scenes, which don't get exponentially crazier as you'd expect.

Of course, I should've seen it on the big screen or IMAX. I can't fathom how long it would have felt then. I'd have left to pee and never come back. I'm not sure how kids would tolerate it, but on DVD, with fast forward and pause, it may keep the ankle-biters occupied for long afternoons. It's a nice test of your Hi-Def screen, but you won't be sitting through it again without chemical entertainment.

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