Fifteen years in the revving, passed on by Alfonso Cuaron, Gus Van Sant, JJ Abrams and Johnny Depp, Speed Racer feels tainted and rusty before it's even streaked off the starting grid. Nodding to the original Japanese ‘toon’s brain-frying kinetics, the bullet-time brothers have gone futurist-retro, whipping and weaving through spindly, thrill-ride race-tracks over a glittering neon metropolis (flying cars: check). There’s much screeching and honking and wheel-spinning, but not the faintest flash of heart or humanity.
It's like being sucked into the ADHD-addled imagination of an eight-year-old. Everything is high-def, high-drama, high-impact: a retina-zapping, soul-sapping candy-swirl of cynically rendered gloss that never once digs its dayglo nails into any story-meat.
There’s plenty to behold, but little to absorb; anything not cranked up to the redline simply fades to grey. It's concentrated, super-saturated glitter, with every frame triple-dipped in blistering techno-bling. Reds aren't allowed to be just red. They have to be super-zingy, ultra-vivid cherry-red. Greens are spangly-glinty lime-apple emerald-green. Yellows: glowy-glitzy banana-daffodil...
No one talks. They pout and shout and leer and jeer and gape and gurn. There's a constant, oompahing underlay of kooky, krazy music; as if the Wachowskis are wobbling about the level of krazy kook they’ve already splattered up on-screen. To confirm: it’s enough. Of course, this is cartoon lunacy. It's meant to skitter across the surface. Blink and sink... But 'family films' can be loud and lively and not skimp on the emotional ripples. Ask Pixar...
The Wachowskis, bless their gawky little hearts, have tried to spice the comic-strip pap with a streak of dark psychology. But the momentum is so relentlessly propulsive, as soon as anyone shuts up for a second, time warps. Air deadens. Fingers drum... And by relying on talky-schmaltzy family issues, the brothers pile saccharine on top of sweet. "Ever since you could talk," blubs Susan Sarandon to son Speed, "you were making engine noises!" Wow! Kids! Making car noises! The tear-streaked pep-talks don't work for the same reason the film doesn't work: nothing grips. Emoting into the green-screen void, the actors seem glazed and distant; just gliding on by - like the cars themselves, skimming and drifting with no sense of weight or traction.
Emile Hirsch is dopey-dorky as the conflicted star racer. Bland Lost boy Matthew Fox is hopelessly miscast as the dark and mysterious Racer X (whose darkness and mysteriousness is somewhat muted by having a big Band-Aid plastered across his forehead). There's an annoying chubby little brother - and his comedy chimp; a mechanic buddy who exists purely to announce exposition out of the morning paper... John Goodman is just John Goodman. Christina Ricci puts on a brave moon-face, but has nothing to do other than look spunky in a tight skirt and PVC boots. Oh, and she gets to say "Cool beans!" a few times. Worst. Catchphrase. Ever… (More Wachowski schizo-tone problems, here. Hot women and kiddy-films don't mix. It's like an on-the-blink TV suddenly cross-tuning Jetix and Adult-X.)
The adult-child mash-up extends to the 'plot': baffling, intercut flashbacks and jolt-forwards; history-lesson asides; endless, finger-wagging jabber about the evils of sponsorship - all further alienating kids still shuddering at jarring scenes of torture and funerals. Okay, so some of the action just about kicks with the kitsch. The racing scenes are vibrant in a videogameish way, and when the Wachowskis step to the side and loosen up a little, we catch glimpses of what the film could have been; a spontaneous, comedy-gratuitous ninja brawl channeling a promising mood of screwball slapstick.
There's also a smart line in playful rib-digging at the excesses of Anime culture (slo-mo leaps into motion-lined backgrounds, absurd shock-grunts and over-cranked sound effects)... But then Tarantino covered that with Kill Bill five years ago... The problem lies in the logic behind the project in the first place: jamming a violent, culturally specific Japanese tradition into an ill-fitting Western trick-box. Some stories just won’t translate and refuse to be moviefied no matter how much software-sauce is ladelled on top. If you feel the need for Speed Racer, pick up the TV series’ DVDs. But American Manga? Like Japanese apple pie, this is more pop-tart than pop-art.
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Overdeveloped, overcooked, overlong. A sickly, synthetic pile-up of confection and collage with barely a character to care about or a second to stop and stare. Infrequent flares of race-action dynamism and the odd half-funny set-piece make Speed Racer 2008's first - and hopefully last - non-event movie.