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Speed Racer (2008)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/09/08 00:00:00

"Stop, Speed Racer, stop!"
1 stars (Sucks)

The Wachowski Brothers set out to make a movie that’s exactly like the old “Speed Racer” cartoon. They succeeded, in that both the cartoon and the new movie are giant piles of unwatchable crap.

If you’ve ever experienced “Speed Racer,” that vintage chunk of Japanese animation, you know what I mean. The show was an ADD paradise of color, motion, noise, and plotless action. Writer/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, helming their first movie since the “Matrix” franchise wrapped in 2003, use digital filmmaking techniques and a CGI landscape to make their live-action “Speed Racer” look just like the TV show. In a way, it works: just as “Sin City” and “300” captured the look of Frank Miller’s graphic novels, the sunshiny fake backgrounds and bizarre action montages perfectly recreate the visual zing of the cartoon. It’s real people inhabiting an animated world. It’s “Speed Racer” brought to life.

But “Speed Racer” (the cartoon) was hopelessly terrible, and the Wachowskis make no effort to improve on the series’ faults. Like the show, the movie is loud and boring and overlong and totally unbearable. The action sequences, of which there are not as many as one would assume from a two-hour movie about auto races, are completely lifeless; the blurry backgrounds, quick cutting, and weightless, not-really-there CG-created cars combine in creating a series of scenes where it’s impossible to tell what, exactly, is happening at any given moment, although when we do, we can’t bring ourselves to care. It’s like watching somebody else play a video game. There’s plenty of color and noise, with computers creating the semblance of rapid motion, but that’s it. Yawn.

Indeed, there was plenty of yawning, and rustling, and general restlessness during the preview screening I attended. Kids took to the aisles in droves. My daughter borrowed my notepad and began doodling, desperate for entertainment. Several adults got up and never returned. I could hear one teen girl, upon returning from a lobby break, take a deep, pitiful sigh right before sitting back down - once more unto the breach, dear friends.

So what happened? For starters, the Wachowskis completely miscalculate every step in producing what they assume to be a kids’ movie. No, I’m not talking about the opening sequence, which jumps back and forth in time so haphazardly that every kid in the theater was left baffled as to who was doing what when, and where. And no, I’m not talking about the rampant gunplay (in a scene that requires no weapons at all, the heroes draw pistols on the villains) or the overly frightening gangsters (one of them forces a lackey to lose a finger to piranhas) or the minor-level vulgarity (the youngest character gives the bad guy the bird, and the script seems obsessed with the word “ass”), although all of this leaves me baffled as to how the MPAA could give this a PG rating, while gentler, less violent films earn PG-13s.

It’s that the filmmakers obviously have no idea how family films are supposed to work - watching “Speed Racer” is like watching “Spy Kids” as remade by people who have never met children before. And so we get major plot points and longwinded monologues about stock trading. Stock trading! There’s a scene where the slimy corporate baddie Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam) tells Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) all about the history of motorsports and its connection to stock portfolios and corporate takeovers and money and investments and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Sorry, dozed off there for a moment. And if the movie can’t manage to make shady business dealings interesting to us grown-ups, what chance does it have keeping the attention of younger viewers, for whom this film was presumably made?

I can picture the Wachowskis sitting around, legal pads in hand, brainstorming the rest. “OK, so we’ve got this awesome stock trading storyline, but there’s a slight chance kids might tune out. What else do they like. I know! Candy! Kids love candy, right?” And so we get a scene where Speed’s insufferable little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) discovers a seemingly infinite supply of sweets (“Perfect for product placement!” a Wachowski likely screams in agreement at the idea) and pigs out, which is supposed to be hilarious. At his side is Chim-Chim the chimpanzee, because the cartoon had a chimp in it, and hey, kids love chimps.

(In the Wachowski’s favor, I will admit that the preview crowd did enjoy watching the chimp, although it’s unclear whether this was because they thought Chim-Chim was genuinely funny or if it was merely a glorious reprieve from all that stock trading crap. Against them, however, is the fact that the chimp is used far too much, and with no originality. Desperate for a quick laugh? Cut to the chimp.)

The remainder of the story is some undercooked nonsense about how Speed’s older brother Rex died while investigating crooked doings in the racing league, and now Speed, after turning down a business offer from Royalton, enters a couple races in order to uncover the truth. On the side are some gangsters out to stop Speed, although they’re all so poorly introduced and even more awkwardly handled later that it’s impossible to tell who’s who and why they’re doing what; they all sort of come and go throughout the story without any sense of logic. Meanwhile, the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) shows up to help, and could he be Speed’s dead brother?

If all of these bits and pieces are mere excuses to set up spectacular race sequences, why bother with so many complications and so much down time? With so much screen time given to story outside the races, you’d think the characters would be more interesting. But the Wachowskis stand by their idea of a cartoon come to life by making every inhabitant of this film a one-dimensional (or even no-dimensional) being whose only trait is that he or she looks just like the animation equivalent. Actors are required to play the simple dialogue broadly, a gimmick that can be clever when it’s working and excruciating when it’s not. (It’s not working.) Hirsch becomes a vapid, ineffective leading man amidst a sea of human cartoons (among them John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Christina Ricci).

With all this against it, the movie needs some terrific action bits to make up the difference. Unfortunately, these are also tiresome slogs. Speed’s car (the famous “Mach 5”) is decked out with all sorts of Batmobile-like gadgetry, which would lend some variety to the proceedings if not for the fact that the main gadget - a set of “legs” that punch off the ground, enabling the car to “leap” into the air, Wile E. Coyote-style - is used about every fifteen seconds, leaving its novelty value worn out all too quickly. Other gadgets are lackluster, their uses uninspired. And all those tricky courses included in the race (a treacherous cave, some upside-down Hot Wheels tracks, etc.) look like they were invented strictly so they could be used in a tie-in video game.

(There’s also a scene where John Goodman fights a ninja. The less said about this, the better.)

All of this stretches out over a butt-numbing 129 minutes, which is the filmmakers’ biggest miscalculation. If you’re going to make a plotless action flick that’s this loud and this fidgety, you need to bring the whole thing in under 90 minutes, and keep out all that stuff about stocks and bonds. Otherwise, your target audience will get itchy, stop doodling, and start leaving.

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