Fun for the whole family: not exactly a phrase you associate with the films of Andy and Larry Wachowski. Before the brutal complexities of the Matrix trilogy, they gave us Bound, a kinky lesbian crime caper that showcased the hand as a sex organ. But that wimpy PG rating on Speed Racer is no mistake. The Wachowskis wanted to make a movie that their nephews and nieces could see without falling prey to existential angst. And Speed Racer — reportedly budgeted at $120 million, what with the mix of live-action and computer effects — is the hyperkinetic result. In terms of coherence, the movie is a mess, a relentlessly adrenalized take on the 1960s TV cartoon series about a racing family that feels the need, the need for speed. Even the target audience of 10-year-olds might get jimmy legs sitting for a punishing 135 minutes as the Wachowski brothers projectile-vomit their cotton-candy dreams all over the big screen.
There is one high note. You can approach Speed Racer as the trippiest stonerfest since Stanley Kubrick took his space odyssey. The colors pop like a whore’s nail polish, the wall-to-wall sound design shows no mercy, and if you catch the movie in IMAX, take out damage insurance on your optic nerve. Back in the Sixties, Kubrick wasn’t the only one who wanted to go visually where no filmmaker had gone before. While the 2001 director was contemplating his own cinematic mind-bender, Japanese anime genius Tatsuo Yoshida was revolutionizing TV with a cartoon series called Mach Go Go Go. When the American version debuted as Speed Racer in 1967, with the dialogue dubbed (badly) into English, a cult was born. Little Larry and Andy Wachowski, kids in Chicago who are now in their 40s, got hooked and stayed hooked when the 52 episodes of Speed Racer spent decades in TV reruns. t’s easy to understand what attracted the Wachowskis to this wowsa of an FX party. They wanted to blend martial arts and Formula One racing into a contact sport they call “Car-Fu.” But the contact never comes. As the cars whiz by in defiance of gravity and logic, nothing sticks to the memory, much less the heart. The performers, acting against a greenscreen at a studio in Berlin, appear lost and disconnected from what’s going on. How could they not? They’re figures in a painted landscape.
The circumstances cause the gifted Emile Hirsch to leap into another kind of wild — the digital kind — to save the day. Hirsch damn near does the impossible, turning the cartoon Speed Racer into someone who is recognizably human. He’s the boy in the white jumpsuit who lives to floor it even when his older brother, Rex (Scott Porter), goes up in flames on the track. Or does he? Maybe the masked Racer X (Matthew Fox) knows something he’s not telling. Hirsch plays this stuff like it matters. Ditto John Goodman as Pops Racer, who plops the Mach 5 he designed right in the middle of the family home. But Pops worries about Speed’s ambition to become the top driver in the World Racing League, as does Mom (Susan Sarandon). They’re grieving over Rex’s death. But Speed and his hottie chopper-pilot girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci, looking like she popped off a cartoon drawing board), have risk in their DNA. Speed’s chubby kid brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), also has the bug. To get his own vicarious thrills, he hides in the trunk of the Mach 5 with his pet chimpanzee, Chim-Chim, played by two chimps named Willy and Kenzie. Litt, 11 at the time, lays it on thick, warning us when a “cootified” kissing scene is coming up. Kid and chimp behave as if mugging were an energy source that could power its own Matrix.
As a break in all the rah-rah, the Korean pop Rain shows up as a rival of Speed’s, but he’s merely posing. It’s up to the tycoon villain, Royalton (Roger Allam, looking like a malevolent Al Gore), to personify corporate corruption. He tries, but there’s no competing with the fireworks.
Before you jump off the ride, let this be said: The Wachowskis are meticulous with every technical detail, putting the new Sony F-23 HD camera at the service of creating cartoon panels that fly by in hyperfocus. Using digital images captured in Italy, Austria, Turkey, Morocco and Death Valley, the Wachowskis and director of photography David Tattersall (the last Wars trilogy) craft a distinct look for each race, especially the Casa Cristo 5000, nicknamed the Crucible, where the digital cars zoom from desert to glacier. Topping that is the climactic Grand Prix, where cars loop and dip around high-rises that evoke the Wachowskis’ native Chicago.
There I go again, looking for a personal connection that Speed Racer never makes, and for a reason to watch it unstoned. As in The Matrix, the Wachowskis create a simulated reality with style and vision. But this time the machines win. Speed Racer feels untouched by human hands.