Sunday, May 24, 2009

Speed Racer (Warner Bros., 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the DVD he’d just got (from a used pile at Vons) of the 2008 film Speed Racer, an elaborate riff by Larry and Andy Wachowski based on the 1960’s Japanese animated series. Charles remembered the show well from its reruns in his own childhood days, and especially committed to memory the infectious musical theme: “Go, go, go, go, go, Speed Racer.” (Virtually all of Michael Giacchino’s original music score is variations on this song.) The movie is really odd because it’s enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying; it’s a pretty standard revenge drama in which the young Speed Racer (that’s really his name!) — played as a boy by Nicholas Elia and as a young man by Emile Hirsch — seeks to avenge the mysterious death of his brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter), who quit the family car company to drive for a big-business syndicate and whose career was ultimately finished first in a scandal and then in a crash.

As soon as Speed Racer starts to win races in his family’s custom-built car, the Mach 5 (a long, low-slung sports car with what appears to be a turbine engine and a capability to allow it to jump over cars and pass them), he and his family — including his father (John Goodman), mother (Susan Sarandon), younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) — pronounced to rhyme with “brittle” — and pet chimp Chim Chim (doubled by two real chimps, “Willy” and “Kenzie”) — get an offer from the sinister multibillionaire E. P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) for Speed Racer to drive on his team. (I suspect the character of Royalton is based on the real-life auto-racing magnate Bernie Ecclestone, a British multi-billionaire who owns the entire sport of Formula One auto racing outright, and among his business partners is Max Mosley, relative of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley; Ecclestone remains a highly controversial figure in international sport and there’s a lot of debate in auto racing circles as to whether his control has been good or bad.)

When the Racers politely turn Royalton down, he determines to do everything he can to stop them — from suing them on the ground that their car infringes one of his patents to ordering his drivers to run Speed off the road in the next race. A desperate Speed, pushed off all legitimate tracks by Royalton and his goons, enters the Casa Christo road rally despite that being the race which killed his brother. He does so in partnership with a Japanese company, Togokahn, which Royalton is attempting to buy out, mainly because the young driver Taejo Togokahn (played by the appealingly androgynous Korean vocal star Rain — though he doesn’t get to sing here), has promised Speed and the mysterious “Racer X,” agent for an international regulatory agency seeking to get the goods on Royalton for fixing virtually every race on the circuit, a full file on Royalton. Speed, his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and Taejo Togokahn drive the three Togokahn team cars to victory in the Casa Christo rally — against various hazards; the cars in this race are essentially weapons, with each driver seeking to knock the others out of the race by foul methods (one car even has spiked hubs — the high-tech equivalent of the “Grecian wheels” on the bad guy’s chariot in Ben-Hur — only Speed’s car has been equipped with shields that pop out from his hubcaps and fight back against the sword-like spikes; he also has molded plastic that fastens itself to his wheel rims when someone tries to shoot out his tires, and a bullet-proof plastic bubble canopy that covers his cockpit when someone tries to shoot him!) — only to find out he was being set up; Taejo’s father only wanted a victory in Casa Christo to boost the stock price of his company so Royalton would pay more for it. Taejo gives Speed his invitation to enter the Grand Prix — and Speed’s family’s shop cranks out a car for him to do so — and of course he wins the big race despite the attempts by Royalton’s forces to sabotage it, good triumphs over evil and there’s a happy ending.

Speed Racer is one of those movies where there’s an enormous gulf between the imagination with which the piece is staged and the tiresome clichés of the plot. There’s an anti-corporate streak to the whole story, and for some reason this was the movie on which the critics decided to let loose their pent-up frustration at seeing all these vaguely anti-capitalist stories come from multinational media conglomerates whose managements behave far more like Royalton than they do like the Racers. Certainly there’s an air of hypocrisy involved in taking a multi-million dollar production budget from a major studio and using it to make a movie blasting the whole idea of multinational corporations — Ayn Rand had a point in the 1940’s when she called on the film industry to abandon the pseudo-populism of so many movies then and now, and instead make films about heroic capitalists and the efforts of mediocre social leeches and proletarian drones to get in their way (in other words, she wanted them to make the sorts of movies she wanted to write!) — but by now the anti-corporate politics many movies profess is little more than a nervous tic, a vestigial leftover from the days of Frank Capra, and quite meaningless and unthreatening in an era in which virtually everyone in the moviegoing audience accepts the idea that capitalism is the only possible economic system and all others, including socialism, are proven failures not even worth considering.

The most appealing part of the film is its visual look; instead of the dirty greens and browns of all too many modern films or the dank, murky darkness of others (including the Wachowskis’ star-making movies, the Matrices), the screen is alive with hot, vibrant colors, probably in homage to the fact that this one started out as a TV cartoon. The racing sequences are especially well staged; while the film’s plot portions are more or less in a standard conception of reality, the races are gravity-defying spectacles in which the line between live-action and animation almost completely disappears. The race tracks in the movie include long jumps that defy physical possibility, and the laws of physics are so totally ignored in the staging of this film it’s not at all surprising to read on that virtually every scene was shot in front of a green screen and the actors playing drivers actually sat in “gimbles,” prop cockpits hooked up to hydraulic systems that moved them up, down or sideways in a pre-programmed pattern based on what that car was supposed to be doing in the script.

That’s the good stuff; the not-so-good stuff is that there’s virtually no emotional power in this film — the characters are deliberate caricatures and there’s nothing like the pathos that occasionally intruded into the dank fantasy world of The Matrices and emerged front-and-center in V for Vendetta, the Wachowskis’ most openly emotional and genuinely moving film. Indeed, the most disappointing thing about Speed Racer is that after making a near-masterpiece like V for Vendetta — in which they proved that their intensely melodramatic action sequences and highly theatrical characterizations could be harnessed into the service of genuinely moving drama — they went back to a cartoon, literally and figuratively, for their inspiration.

I had assumed that doing a big-budget, big-screen, (more or less) live-action version of Speed Racer was the Wachowskis’ own idea and this was sort of a pet project for them, but according to that wasn’t the case — there was a previous version under development with Alfonso Cuarón as director and Johnny Depp as star, which would have been even weirder than the one we got — and what’s the real mystery behind the film is who they thought the audience would be. About the only people who would turn out for a movie based on Speed Racer were those of the right age to remember the TV series — and that doesn’t include most of the movie audience of today; all those teenagers who know very well who Spider-Man and Batman are couldn’t care less about a tacky old Japanese TV show whose heyday occurred well before they were born and which hasn’t remained part of the cultural Zeitgeist the way the DC and Marvel super-heroes have.

Not surprisingly, Speed Racer was a near-total flop and probably took the Wachowskis’ career down (if not out) with it (Larry and Andy Wachowski are currently listed on as producers of an upcoming movie called Ninja Assassin, but they’re neither the directors nor the writers; and also Larry is listed as attached to an in-development project called Cloud Atlas scheduled for release in 2011 … yeah, right; I’ll believe it when I see it!), and as it is it’s a fun movie, about a third too long at 127 minutes (but then the Wachowskis’ movies have always tended to be too long; it’s still amazing that John Carpenter was able to get more out of the central premise of The Matrix in one 105-minute film, They Live, than the Wachowskis were able to in three 135-minute films!), entertaining but also way too proud of its own cleverness, the cinematic equivalent of gorging yourself on gourmet chocolate and cotton candy and then wondering why you feel bloated and still not nourished afterwards …