- HERE HE COMES: Emile Hirsh as Speed Racer.
Reviewing movies is partly a game of expectations. You try not to have them, of course, no matter how familiar you are with a director or actor or writer's work, because you want to be objective. It's impossible to divorce yourself from history, though, and history will inform your judgment, no matter how hard you fight it.
That must be what happened with “Speed Racer” and me. I don't read criticism of films I'm going to review beforehand, but the Internet wouldn't let me remain ignorant of the fact that pretty much every film critic in the world now blames writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski for their mother's cancer.
Maybe it was hearing second-hand about all the seething hatred, probably it was the image that leaps to mind whenever I read the phrase “Wachowski brothers film” (it involves bronzed poop, George Lucas and adolescent sex fantasies), but I didn't hate “Speed Racer” as much as everyone else seems to.
Don't get me wrong; this is not a good movie by any reasonable metric. Its story is one overly complicated string of corruptions and backroom deals that will all be undone if Speed can just win this race — wait, I mean the next one, that's the one that will fix everything.
Spread over the top of this is Speed's own difficulty coming to terms with his brother's death and pursuing the pure joy of racing cars for fun and profit, but this too plays just like more background for why we're going to watch another hi-speed smashup. You don't really care about him that much, he's just the good guy with the car.
That would perhaps be excusable if the races themselves had any real drama or tension, but they're just aggregations of gee-whiz special effects and lightning-fast cuts that are so brilliant and blinding that you almost can't tell what's going on in the race.
Sometimes there's just a big pile of cars and everybody gasps and then Speed comes magically screaming out of it, ninja-kicking some bad guy's car with his car like it's “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Carburetor.” Not exciting, just simultaneously confusing and impressive.
Visually, the entire film is likewise impressive, from its primary-colors-on-crystal-meth palette to its Yellow-Submarine-with-lasers view of the future to its dear-God-look-at-Susan-Sarandon's-breasts.
It is a very pretty thing from front to back, more a moving CGI painting than a movie, but even that is to its detriment. All that presentation comes off less like a Speed Racer movie and more like a filmed dissertation about Why Speed Racer Is So Freaking Awesome.
Sounds like I hated it, right? I didn't, and here's where that history comes in: This is in many ways the most well-made Wachowski brothers film ever. Low bar to clear? Sure, but it's the best cast they've ever assembled, it's probably the best directing they've done so far, and it's easily the best dialogue they've ever written. It is exactly what it attempts to be: a big-bang expensive spectacle, a showcase of creative explosions and monkey jokes that your kids will almost certainly love.
Strange that this is what goes for praise when discussing a filmmaker's body of work, but they've done far worse with much more.