Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Speed Racer (2008, The Wachowski Brothers)

The seventies cartoon cult classic revs its way onto multiplex screens this weekend with Speed Racer, the latest film by the Wachowski Brothers, who created The Matrix. Whereas that film and its better-left-forgotten sequels were pitched mostly to teenagers and young adults, Speed Racer is more of a family movie. But don’t let that fool you- aside from some kid-friendly business with Speed’s little brother and his pet chimpanzee, this is anything but a cutesy kids’ movie. Instead, it’s a high-powered action adventure, featuring a charismatic lead performance in the title role by Emile Hirsch (last seen in last year’s Into the Wild) and some solid supporting performances, particularly from John Goodman as Speed’s car-builder dad and Matthew Fox (from TV’s Lost) as the mysterious Racer X. But the real stars of the movie are the visual effects. The Matrix pushed the envelope for effects technology nine years ago, and Speed Racer does it again, creating a candy-colored world of visual wonderment (word to the wise: sit up close and let the movie wash over you). Whereas most effects-heavy movies tie themselves in knots to make their worlds realistic, Speed Racer goes the opposite direction, sending its cars jumping, spinning, and flying in ways that defy every conceivable law of physics. In lesser hands, this would feel cheesy, but not here. Yes, the racing scenes in Speed Racer could never be possible in the real world, but it’s a testament to how entertaining the movie is that I wished they could.

But what really sells Speed Racer is how completely it embraces the absurdity of its premise. Like the Matrix trilogy, this is a story about a “chosen one”- I mean, duh, the kid’s named “Speed Racer,” like he could be anything else. But the Wachowskis never make the mistake of bogging the story down with any more significance than it can bear. Even the heavier stuff in the film- the race-fixing subplot, the backstory involving Speed’s dead brother- is played broadly, so as to fit into the live-action cartoon world that the brothers have created. And really, it’s the eye-candy that makes the movie soar, making it easier to forgive the occasional sop to the family audience. Speed Racer isn’t without its issues, but it’s also such a rush that they hardly matter. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the hell out of the movie, even if it was only the second-best thing that happened to me today.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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