Why Speed Racer crashed and burned

Splash visuals and a flat visual style in the Wachowskis' latest.

click to enlarge GO GO GO: Emile Hirsch stars at the titular hero in the Wachowski Brothers' frenetic, live-action Speed Racer. - Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.
GO GO GO: Emile Hirsch stars at the titular hero in the Wachowski Brothers' frenetic, live-action Speed Racer.

The essence of Speed Racer, Larry and Andy Wachowski's first directing job since their groundbreaking Matrix trilogy, is located in the scene where a candy-bloated 9-year-old and his pet chimp careen down a corridor zonked out of their heads on a massive sugar high. The sequence distills everything you wind up either loving or hating about the movie: There's nothing to it other than pure, frenetic energy and an ultra-groovy design sense (pitched somewhere between a manga comic book and a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas neon acid trip), all amplified to the point of no return. Moviegoers raised on a steady diet of videogames will likely revel in the head-spinningness of it all; other (possibly older) viewers may find themselves yearning to be submerged in the nearest sensory deprivation tank.

Just be thankful it's not in 3-D. Constantly in motion and way beyond candy-colored, Speed Racer seems positively irradiated, like one of those trendy nitrogen oxygen cocktails pumping rapidly through the digestive track of some exotic, phosphorescent creature from the depths of the ocean. That's about all there is to the Wachowski Brothers' live-action, big-screen adaptation of the '60s cartoon series about a young race car driver, his wacky, automobile-obsessed family and the evil dudes constantly trying to destroy them.

Speed Racer spews out a stream of vividly splashy visuals, careens forward at a breathless clip and provides a certain modicum of fun, but the movie also seems to think it's inviting us into some sort of engrossing drama that never materializes. In a weird contradiction worthy of The Matrix, the Wachowskis' film is proudly two-dimensional, and more power to it for that, but that's the very reason that it's difficult to enter into the story in any meaningful way. Even the action scenes — primarily a series of races in which fancy cars endlessly flip around tracks twisted as if inside a worm hole (probably situated inside The Matrix, or maybe Tron) — are so flat they fail to drum up much excitement. And with no real sense of danger here and no gravity (literally), the Wachowskis' pop opus begins to look more than a little like Shark Boy and Lava Girl with delusions of grandeur.

Speed Racer (PG) Stars Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and Matthew Fox. 3 stars

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