Movie News & Reviews

Speed Racer can't out run weak characters

I'm not much for fate, but I do believe the name we're born with candetermine a lot about the person we grow up to be.

Take former Seahawks fullback Mack Strong. The only better name for afullback would be He-Monster, Destroyer of Linebackers. When you'reborn as Mack Strong, it should almost be expected you'll end up as apremier NFL player. The real surprise is he hasn't ended upconquering us all as the great and terrible God-Emperor of earth.

Under Mack Strong's awesome reign, some might grow up to play profootball, but the only other job in Strongdonia would be the ceaselessconstruction of 80-foot statues in his glorious image.

Likewise, when Speed Racer's parents named him, you can be damn surethey knew he wasn't going to end up as a pastry chef or a turtlebreeder. Kid's going to race cars. They didn't do as well with hisolder brother Rex. Other than SIDS, about the only name worse for ayoung racer would be Burn-Unit.

In Speed Racer, Emile Hirsch (as Speed) has been obsessed withracing since he was a kid and older brother Scott Porter was settingrecords all across the pro circuit. The sport eventually costs Porterhis life, but if anything, that just makes Hirsch's drive to competeall the stronger.

And he's got the talent to match. His ability catches the eye ofRoger Allam, founder of Royalton Industries, a megacorporation thatsponsors some of the best drivers in the game. Now, he wants Hirsch onhis team, too.

But the Racer team's always been independent, family-owned, and Hirschregretfully turns him down--only to be laughed at. The sport's alwaysbeen fixed, Allam tells him, and deciding who wins and who loses isnothing more than a way to manipulate a sponsor's stock price. Hirschdoesn't want to play ball? Then, Allam will run him right out of thesport.

This live-action Speed Racer is so faithful to the originalcartoon I have no doubt they'll some day be holding hands in MediocreEntertainment Heaven. Whatever their faults, writer/directors theWachowski Brothers are terribly exciting visual stylists, and theymake Speed Racer look cartoony -- in a good way -- the same way300 and Sin City looked comic booky.

It's a weird thing to stare at a shiny, hyper-stylized car tear-assingaround a murderously curved, obviously-not-real track and know thateverything you're looking at is fake, conjured from the guts of sometwo-steps-from-sentient supercomputer, but also so convincing it's asif the Wachowskis transported a video camera into an alternatecandy-colored universe and then smuggled the film back to ours.

Graphically, the boys have few if any rivals.

Criminally, they bring the same cartoon sensibility to SpeedRacer's characters. In a kids' cartoon, the presence of Speed'sscampish, obnoxious little brother Spritle and his monkey sidekick canbe overlooked (though not forgiven). I can even respect theWachowskis' desire to be faithful to the source material. But in thetranslation from source to the big screen, it can actually be a favorto the original to downplay or cut out its negatives. The only comicrelief Spritle provides is the hilarious delusion he's funny in thefirst place. Promoting him to second banana in an ostensibleHollywood blockbuster is a mistake of Jar Jar Binksian proportions.

The rest of the cast gets off marginally better. It's a pretty greatensemble (Hirsch, Allam, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, ChristinaRicci, and Hiroyuki Sanada, among others), but I get the sense theWachowskis frequently chose their most exaggerated line-readings.Goodman's got some depth as a protective but sensitive father. Theothers aren't much more than a bunch of guys who whose looks areinfinitely more distinctive than their personalities.

Among other tricks in Speed Racer, the Wachowskis like to blenda scene with numerous flashbacks and flash-forwards, filling in pastdetail even as they lay out the implications of what's currentlyhappening. It's an interesting technique, but it's confusing, too;the substance just can't keep up with the style. You could say asmuch about the whole movie. It looks like nothing else on earth, butas for all the rest -- its story, its people, its meaning -- they're justfaces in the crowd.

Grade: C+