09 May 2008
How far the Wachowski Brothers have fallen. It wasn't so long ago—1999, in fact—that they were the hottest thing in the entertainment world. The Matrix revolutionized and energized not only action movies but filmmaking in general, expanding the limits of what can be done with technology and making Keanu Reeves cool beyond all reason—"whoa," indeed.
But then, four years later, came the sequels: The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Andy and Larry Wachowski crashed back to Earth with a deafening thud, brought down by the weight of their own pretensions and, ironically, the technology that helped them make their names in the first place. Much like the Star Wars prequels, chapters two and three of the Matrix saga are perfect examples of what not to do with CGI. The Wachowskis allowed the effects to become the star to the detriment of everything else.
Which brings us to Speed Racer, the brothers' big-screen adaptation of the 1960s cartoon series that many view as the precursor to anime. The filmmakers behind the smart thriller Bound (1996) are long gone and show no signs of returning. Speed Racer is the Wachowskis on overdrive and the result is a garish nightmare that looks like Andy and Larry ate a kaleidoscope, then vomited all over the screen. The PG rating indicates it is intended to be a family-friendly movie, but I cannot begin to guess who the real target audience is. At more than two hours, it likely will have hard time holding the attention of younger viewers. The racing action is too chaotic to appeal to anyone and makes the Star Wars: Episode I pod race seem like thrilling, edge-of-your-seat entertainment by comparison. And I can't see the sophomoric humor involving a kid and his pet monkey garnering laughs from anyone other than the smallest of youngsters.
The story—introduced in an overly elaborate sequence involving flashes back, forward, maybe even sideways—concerns the Racer family (yes, that is their actual surname): Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops (John Goodman), Speed (Emile Hirsch), young Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his monkey Chim-Chim. Naturally, the family business is auto racing, and Speed desperately wants to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Rex (Scott Porter), who was killed on a particularly grueling cross-country race. We also have in the picture Speed's girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), who apparently does not have a family of her own, some British dude called Sparky (Kick Gurry)—I'm still trying to figure out his connection to the others—and the masked, mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox). A clearly evil man named Royalton (Roger Allam) tries to recruit Speed to his racing team. Speed is tempted but unwilling to turn his back on his family. Royalton then does everything in his power to ruin the Racers, while Speed prepares to enter the very race that took his brother's life.
The actors take a backseat to the spectacle the Wachowskis obviously were going for and it seems like they are aware of that. They're virtually invisible. I'm not convinced that the Wachowskis didn't create a CGI Matthew Fox and have him literally phone in his performance from the set of Lost in Hawaii. Hirsch makes a complete 180 from his iconic, career-defining role in Into the Wild, a film that emphasized the natural beauty of the world and used the real locations Christopher McCandless visited during his travels. For Speed Racer, I doubt Hirsch ever worked without a blue screen behind him, and the actor who only last year showed us so much fire and charisma is devoid of personality.
A few of the performers fare a little better. Ricci can seem at times like a real-life cartoon character with her huge eyes and fits in just fine with her surroundings. Goodman and Allam, meanwhile, realize the only way to leave an impact is to chew so much computer-generated scenery that it is impossible to overlook them. Goodman is one "yabba-dabba-doo" and pet dinosaur away from being Fred Flintstone.
Realistically, though, each actor could have given an Oscar-caliber performance and it would not have mattered when the final product resembles a film adaptation of a pinball machine. A week ago, Iron Man showed us the best in summer filmmaking. Speed Racer represents the opposite end of the spectrum and is an early candidate for worst movie of 2008.
(Rated PG for sequences of action, some violence and language. 129 minutes.)