Sunday, May 11, 2008

In Theaters: Speed Racer

Ignore the cynical critics, who seem to object to SPEED RACER more on a conceptual level than on anything to do with the film that’s been made. Ignore the fact that this is yet another movie based on a vintage TV show. Ignore the poor box office reports. SPEED RACER is, and I never expected to say this, a truly great film. It does what it sets out to do almost perfectly- you may object to what it sets out to do, especially if you have epilepsy, but there is not only skill in this film’s execution, but genuine heart.

I went into SPEED RACER hoping to enjoy it, but seeing it mostly out of principle. Said principle was that movies are not colorful enough these days, and that anything which embraces the idea of having more than one shade onscreen at a time deserves support. I knew the reviews were not great, and at any moment I expected the film’s massive flaws to reveal themselves, and the divide in opinion (because I’ve heard enthusiastic responses to the film on various fora) would be explained, and I would decide what side I fell on. I actually kinda wish I’d seen what the problem was. Instead, I gotta say, this is a superb spectacle that delivers everything it promises, and the naysayers- I don’t get what their deal is.

If you’ve seen the show (I actually haven’t), you know the story. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the middle child of the Racer family, who as you might expect are big in the car racing game. Pops Racer (John effing Goodman) builds cars, and big brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter) drives them. But at some point Rex seems to go bad, aggressively pushing off other drivers and seemingly being killed in the middle of a massive cross country race. Years later, though, the Racer tradition lives on, as Speed continues his brother’s legacy in the Mach 5 (in an ingenious touch, the first race sequence slides between Rex and Speed running the same track, eventually racing against each other for the all time record.) After a big win, Speed is approached by Royalton (Roger Allam), head of Royalton Motors, who wants him to race under their banner. However, Speed decides to stick with the family, and this infuriates his would-be boss, who vows that from then on, Speed won’t win, won’t place, won’t even finish a race.

A lot of major companies make a lot of money off of racing, and they negotiate and plan the outcomes of major races. Sure enough, Speed is forced off the track at Fiji, and Pops comes under investigation for alleged IP infringement. But the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) has been investigating the link between the big companies and the underworld (represented by some downright Victorian British gangsters), and on finding out that racer Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop sensation and Stephen Colbert nemesis Rain) has been in their pay to protect his sister Minx (Nayo Wallace), he and the wonderfully named Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) try to get him to testify. In exchange, Taejo wants to protect his family’s company from a buyout, and to do that he plans to win the Crucible, the team cross country race that ended Rex’s career. Speed Racer is offered the third position on the team, and sneaks off, over his father’s objections.

All this and more takes place in a universe that is a giant live action and CGI cartoon, rendered in bright basic colors. The drivers race along impossibly twisted tracks, and are saved from crashes and explosions by being encased in spheres of foam. This encourages the racers to get a little violent, and even the good guys have to fight and inevitably force competitors off the road. The race sequences are insanely kinetic, but though the flood of color and motion is overwhelming at first, a rhythm soon emerges, and usually a shot will focus on a specific car or racer. In a way this mimics the look of the cartoon, in which, as in many anime shows, static characters would be surrounded by speed lines and signs of motion. The same balance of images is shown in the less actiony scenes- even though we’re seeing lots of things on screen at once, there are clever emphases and patterns that emerge. Royalton’s office is bedecked in royal purple, and when he tries to convince speed that the racing world is driven entirely by money, background colors fade and we’re surrounded by black and white.

This is a film full of whimsy and imagination, and tiny details and not-quite-necessary things are everywhere. The Crucible race is started when the Queen of Casa Christo looks out and sees the sun; various on-track “assassins” take the form of sexy pink-haired girls with phallic tire spikes a la BEN HUR (Speed combats them with tire shields, and right now Freud wishes he were still alive to analyze that), Viking marauders, and mercenary soldiers; Speed’s younger brother Spridle (Paulie Witt) and his monkey pal Chim Chim imagine themselves in the action of a superhero cartoon they watch; out-of-focus hearts appear in the background when Speed and his best girl Trixie (Christina Ricci, whose looks are made for anime) lay eyes on each other. There are vicious gangsters and ninja and caverns of ice, and the cars themselves have useful gadgets a-plenty, though some are less legal than others (the Mach-5’s jumping springs, which get it out of tight situations, are A-OK, but the spearhook, used to catch cars in a deadlock, is bad form indeed.)

All of this is handled with a good sense of humor; there’s an inevitable level of camp in the proceedings, obviously, though the movie tries not to let that undermine the story. We end up laughing with the film’s absurdities more than at them; we’re not asked to really accept anything as plausible, just as cool. This is a universe where logic and physics are subservient to aesthetics, and everything that happens, happens because it would be totally awesome if it did.

One doesn’t expect much from the acting in a movie like this, but some thought seems to have gone into this as well. To be sure, we’re dealing with cartoon characters, who must be strong and basic in their motivations and drives, but the cast works hard to make these personalities come across. Nobody breaks character, or goes through the motions; in particular Goodman, and Susan Sarandon as his wife,are very strong as Speed’s ever-supportive parents. One part of the film that works very well is its emphasis on family; a lot of kids movies will try to tell us that a given family is strong and supportive and so on, but this one makes us feel it; a bond between the characters is always apparent. Ricci is a treat as well, and there are a few fun cameos here and there. Hirsch carries the lead well, and though there’s not a lot to really distinguish his performance, it’s the kind of work that we would have noticed more had it gone horribly wrong.

Family is one of the main themes of the film, of course, as is the struggle of the athlete against corporate corruption of the sport. Some critics have made a point of calling out the film as insincere on this point, since it is, after all, a big budget summer movie replete with merchandising tie-ins; obviously SOMEONE involved cares about the money. But the point really seems to be that corporations are a bad thing when they try to reduce it to be ONLY about money, when they work against the passion that drives sports as well as filmmaking. The big message of the movie, I think, is a very idealistic one- that you CAN stand against the system. That nothing is so big that it cannot be brought down. And on this point the film is very strong.

I can, off the top of my head, name one flaw in the movie. Spridle and Chim Chim have a little too much screen time. They’re the film’s big comic relief, and though they’re not unfunny, they pop up a little too often. I’m also trying to remember the exact point at which Rex’s fortunes turned, but maybe in a film this overstuffed it’s inevitable that something will slip one’s mind. There is an interesting point where we get what seems like the climax, and an unusually long denouement, until we realize that the third act is in fact still around the corner. This is a long movie, to be sure, but despite that weird shift it’s never dull, and I do have to give the film credit for actually making me buy into the false crisis and false dawn.

And so here I am. I have to give this an A; the film almost never steps wrong, and there were many chances for it to do so. Not only is it fun, not only do we see John Goodman fight a ninja, but so help me God it is genuinely a compelling experience. You want Speed to win and to root out the corruption in his world, and there are moments of true suspense and elation. I cannot fault it. I honestly do not see the problem.

See this picture while you can. The box office apparently has not been good (nowadays we can predict these things before the opening weekend is even over, and if that’s not a grim bit of fatalism infecting the movie world I don’t know what is), and this blast of color and cheer does call for the big screen. SPEED RACER is a wonderland, a feast, a glorious over-the-top sports opera that looks wide-eyed at the drive we feel to be our best and what we have to do to stand up to a world which seeks to crush ambition. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s downright heartfelt. It’s honestly better than THE MATRIX, and I think the Wachowskis have genuinely redeemed themselves for the missteps made in the sequels. This film works when it really shouldn’t, and perhaps if you go in skeptical from the start it won’t appeal to you. Better to see it with an open mind and let it wash over you. Trust me, it’s an experience you should have.

Based on characters created by Tatsuo Yoshida
Written and Directed by the Wachowski Brothers

Grade: A

1 comment:

weepingsam said...

It's odd that this has become the movie people are talking about - all those bad reviews, followed by a kind of anti-backlash of positive comments... But there it is, and all the back and forth puts it in terms that made me a lot more curious about this than about any of the other hollywood films around...

I'm for it. It's a great looking film - completely enjoyable. All the eye-candy doesn't get in the way of the story, does a good job of putting it over, even. (The story sometimes gets in the way of the eye-candy, though - whenever there has to be some exposition or character development, the film sags for a while, though even that could be worse.) And it is all put together so remarkably well - the gorgeous colors, the constant motion, the clever editing, back and forth in time and space and in and out of people's heads - it's a trip. Everything is on the surface, without apologies, and everything seems to be there because it would be fun... The races sometimes do look exactly like video games, complete with those stupid little comments games throw in - but even when they do, sooner or later, things speed up so much that you forget it - everything blends and smears, and, what can I say? It's a treat.