As a film, SPEED RACER is one of the great storyboards of all time. Unfortunately, that’s about all it is. Overplotted and underwritten, it is ultimately trumped by an exuberant color scheme that splays itself across the screen showing as little restraint as the chimpanzee of the piece. There are some yellows that might actually cause retinal burn. The simian antics, broad and pointless, cause another kind of pain.
Based on the semi-animated television series of the same name, the one that featured little more than static drawings with mouths that moved, this incarnation by the Wachowski Brothers moves a great deal. In fact, the dazzle that is CGI-generated race cars defying most of the laws of physics is quite fetching for the first ten minutes or so. After that, even sparks flying, not to mention bits of machinery on the wrong end of explosions, and the monumental sound of metal grinding itself into oblivion can’t quite cover the fact that what is going on is not much, and repetitive at that. This may well be the most dynamic species of tedium ever exhibited.
As for the story, there are nefarious doings thanks to nasty corporations, and, of course, the only way to defeat them is to drive a car faster than anyone else can. Who better that the eponymous Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch)? Scion of the Racer family after the tragic death of older brother Rex (Scott Porter) who left home after a falling out with Pops (John Goodman), head of the clan and of the family business, Racer Motors, he’s been racing mad since he was in diapers. He’s also mad about Trixie (Christina Ricci playing the part of a kewpie doll), the pert, big-eyed girl who lives with his family for reasons that are never explained. There’s also Mom (Susan Sarandon), who wears cutsie earrings, delivers boffo speeches about how proud she is to be Speed’s mom, and whips up a mean batch of pancakes, an annoying pre-teen brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), whose only job is to look astonished and/or indignant, and that monkey.
Speed is wooed by the head of Royalton Industries (Roger Allam), who’s initial interest in Speed is theoretically helping his racing career, but which plays just a hair too close to the pederasty line. Maybe it’s the crayon-colored suits Royalton wears. There’s more going on though, a stock manipulation, a competition for the ultimate auto power source, a piranha-loving bad guy who runs his evil empire out of a large moving van. But when that gets dull, and it does, there is yet another race, and after a while, they all start to look the same. A very short while. Oddly enough, for all the kinetic energy of the racing sequences, those are not the visuals that stand out. Those would be the flashbacks as backdrop, that tell a backstory with an elegant, visual economy.
Hirsh has the right stalwart, straight-arrow vibe for the guy who hasn’t gotten to first-base with Trixie after all these years (and availability), and who is shocked to discover that some people in the racing game might actually cheat. Goodman and Sarandon, pros that they are, deliver good performances that only serve to bring the writing’s shortcomings into sharper relief. Matthew Fox, on the other hand, dolled up for most of his screen time in a ninja-like Racer X black leather racing suit with built-in dark goggles, is forced by the restraints of said costume, to do most of his acting with his nose. It’s a good nose, though, and the character doesn’t require much more than that.
SPEED RACER punctuates its racing scenes with running, melodramatic commentary from a series of announcers and this is a good thing. It’s the only way to tell what is going one once the action starts. Exposition of a different and stifling sort kicks in for the rest of it. The result is that most unsatisfying of oxymorons, the talky action flick that runs in circles and going nowhere really, really fast.