”Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer. He's a demon on wheels.“
Well, a PG-rated demon, anyway. The Wachowski brothers dived into the Chocolate Factory for this hunk of eye candy. Their homage to the violent, dopey, under-animated yet oh-so-fondly-remembered 1960s Japanese children's cartoon is a loving one, not nearly the 27-car pile-up one might have feared. It just takes too long to get us to the checkered flag.
Speed Racer is a dazzling Day-Glo toy commercial with cute characters, super futuristic cars, cartoonish villains ... and guns, torture and a smattering of gratuitous profanity. Which is to say it's a kids' movie as imagined by the team who made The Matrix trilogy and Bound. Not quite ”kiddie,“ not exactly ”edgy“ either.
In a delightful first act, we meet a young Speed (Nicholas Elia), middle son of the Racer family. He can't keep his mind on schoolwork. He's all about cars, the car-building business dad (John Goodman) runs, the World Racing League ”Mach 5“ that his brother Rex (Scott Porter) competes with. Rex teaches Speed everything he knows, which is one lesson: ”Stop steering and start driving.“ And then Rex is gone, killed in a road-rally accident that scars the family.
Cut to the twenty-something Speed, now played with gee-whiz earnestness by Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild). He's true to his girl, Trixie (Christina Ricci, cast against type and funny). He's racing against the ghost of his dead brother. Speed is a good big brother to goofy young Spritle (Paulie Litt) and their pet chimp, Chim Chim.
And he's pure of heart and of motive. Speed wants to win the WRL championship, take the Gran Prix and do it without the corrupting influence of the big manufacturing cartel.
Roger Allam plays the oily chief of Royalton, a company that wants to corner the market on the fuel-cell gadgets that run the cars. He courts Speed and turns on him when Speed rebuffs his advances.
Thus does our heroic driver dash off to the deadly, ultra-cool Hot Wheels tracks and race car roller-coasters that constitute the WRL's season. The cars are retro-futuristic bullets that can bounce out of danger as they slide through turns, climb walls and weave through deadly pylons. Intentional wrecking and explosive wipeouts are a big part of this sport (Speed is a little less sadistic than his competition), but crashes often end with air bag-like-bubbles puffing up around the driver, saving him or her from injury. The races in this are strobing blurs of light and color, a vexing delight to ADHD sufferers. The drivers have comic-book names: Snake Oiler, Semper Fi-ber, Thor-azine.
Except for Racer X, who wears an X-Men suit and cool, identity-hiding shades and is played with a hint of ”Nobody I know will see this, right?“ by Matthew Fox (TV's Lost). He's a possible bad guy who might be a good guy who might be more than just a good guy to Speed.
Fox needn't have seemed so embarrassed. Oscar winner Susan Sarandon (as Speed's mom) certainly wasn't. As long and sometimes dull and certainly silly as Speed Racer is, it's no dumber than Transformers and every bit as witty and eye-catching. The flashbacks to Speed's (and Trixie's) youth are the best scenes. The races are digital-image time-killers. But anything involving arguing the merits of ”selling out“ to the cartel could have been cut. This isn't Harry Potter. Ninety minutes of Speed, not more than two hours, would have sufficed.
But any film fan will appreciate the Wachowskis' vision of this alternative universe, which is every bit as densely textured and as pan-Asian/pan-planetary in its casting as The Matrix. It might have been utter folly to write the checks for them to indulge in this whimsy, but between the pimped rides, the wacky races and that darned chimp, they've concocted a summer sugar buzz that kids will remember, at least until Prince Caspian opens next week.
Emile Hirsch got a shock filming "Into the Wild" and "Speed Racer" back to back (:35)