Whether they like it or not, the Wachowski Brothers will always have to live with the achievement of spectacularly losing their army of fans when the pompous sequels to The Matrix (1999) failed to return anywhere near the same level of originality and energy. Although the special effects and action sequences delivered in the main, they were not the massive step up everyone hoped and the story descended into philosophical mumblings best saved for an academic text book. Family-friendly Speed Racer, an adaptation of a Japanese cartoon popular in the west at various times from the 1970s to 1990s, should have been an easy ride for them, but they stale badly before getting round the first lap.
Speed Racer should have been a simple flying lap on the way to a winning formula for Larry and Andy Wachowski. An in-built adult fanbase from the Saturday morning cartoons and the easy-to-please kid market to tap into meant all they had to do was deliver a breezy adaptation with enough references to the old and a dash of CGI to beckon in the new — after all, it’s just morals for the kids overlaid with a splash of racing action to liven things up, surely? Well, no, it’s actually more than two hours of dull dialouge, cardboard characters and garish sets only made remotely watchable by frenetic scenes on the track loaded with green screen effects that may well make your eyes bleed with hyperactivity.
Essentially Speed Racer is a coming-of-age movie. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is following in the footsteps of his brother Rex (Scott Porter) who was leading their dad’s (played by John Goodman) team to victory in a computer game-esque motor racing league until a fatal crash in an off-road rally. Speed has the support of his family (including a hardly used Susan Sarandon as Mom) and girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) but is approached by the owner of the owner of the dominant Royalton Industries who tells him the league is fixed and Speed must join him to have any hope for success. Our hero declines, of course, but after a shunt on track he finds himeself entering the same fateful rally Rex died in. With the help of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), Speed must win to have any hope of taking part in the seaon finale and clear his family of their longstanding links to cheating on the track.
Thankfully the race sequences come along to rescue us from a lecture in self-belief and confidence.
Filmed almost entirely in front of a green screen, the Wackowski’s have attempted to bring the Speed Racer cartoon to life, however they overuse primary colours to make it hard enough on the eyes without dragging out every scene with over zealous references to honour or self-belief. Like the overloading of philosophical mumblings that would taint The Matrix sequels, Speed Racer is a tiresome ride off the track as every character over-emphasises everything, making it a labour to endure. Thankfully the race sequences come along to rescue us from a lecture in self-belief and confidence. Perhaps even more annoying is the inclusion of Speed’s little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and chimp friend Chim Chim who are worse than Jar Jar Binks in terms of pointless screen time. You’ll want to throttle Spritle by the end and wonder which PG Tips advert you’ve seen Chim Chim in before — their roles are that mishandled.
Thankfully the racing is where the money has really been spent and they are the centrepieces of Speed Racer. Like the pod race in The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999), they stand out as the most entertaining aspect of an otherwise unremarkable family movie. Cars crash, slide and jump to delirous effect and, although at times the enjoyment is shallow like watching someone else play a videogame, it’s easy to get caught up in by the sheer thrills on offer.
Yet, for all the expense spent on the stylised track action, Speed Racer backfires badly and it’s tacky look off it does it no favours. If the Wachowski brothers had learnt to be a little more subtle and eased off on the unnecessary chatter, they would have realised this is not the sort of film to attempt to get taken seriously. You’re better off enjoying it in front of a big screen television, skipping to the races as every time Speed gets out of his car it’s not just a pit stop before he gets back in, it’s a black flag for attention levels.