"Speed Racer" bemoans corporately financed entertainment for the masses while serving as a fine example thereof. So as big, blaring blockbusters go, it's a bit of a hypocrite. It is also self-congratulatory. When Susan Sarandon's Mom Racer (think Jane Jetson without the pre-feminist itch to shop) tells her son, Speed, played by Emile Hirsch, that what he does may be machine-driven but it's "art" that "takes my breath away," the whap-whap-whap you hear isn't a blown tire, it's brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski patting themselves on the back.
But "Speed Racer" doesn't look like any other movie. At its best, it's buoyant pop entertainment focused on three things: speed, racing and retina-splitting oceans of digitally captured color. The Wachowskis' first project as writers-directors since their "Matrix" trilogy resembles the aftermath of a big box of Dots flung at the world's largest set of Fiesta dinnerware. The palette makes Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy" look like "Stranger Than Paradise."
Aired on Japanese television in 1967 and, a few months later, dubbed into English for eager, crash-crazy American tots, "Speed Racer" ("Mach Go-Go-Go" in Japanese) came from the world of comic books. The Wachowskis respect the dynamism of the original drawings, while carving out their own middle ground between computer animation and live action. They respect also the themes of honor, dishonor, family loyalty and Visigoth-inspired barbarism behind the wheel.
The TV show's appeal was pretty simple. As the theme song exhorted its hero to "go, Speed Racer, go, Speed Racer, go, Speed Racer, go," millions of kids watched one of Speed's anonymous rivals crash through a guardrail and (presumably) perish in a ball of flame. Fiery fatality backed by a peppy major-chord theme: yeah!
In the Wachowskis' film, a crash impact immerses the unfortunate driver in a foamlike substance, bouncing him like a rubber ball out of harm's way. Then, periodically, a big ball of plot rolls onto the track to take its place. The screenplay pits Speed against the conniving head of Royalton Industries, who is trying to lure the boy-man with the Elvis hair onto Royalton's all-star racing team. The big races, Speed learns, have been fixed by Royalton (Roger Allam) and his cronies.
Royalton's trying to engineer the stock fortunes of two competing Japanese firms. Younger viewers may wonder what's at stake in these scenes. Also, the welter of flashbacks relating to the disgrace and apparent death of Speed's racer brother, Rex, gets a little thick. ( Matthew Fox plays Racer X, who may be Rex in do-gooder disguise.) "Dad, can I have your notebook and pen a second?" whispered my 7-year-old son at one point early on. His comment: "THIS MOVIE MAKES NO SENSE." But 20 minutes and one big race later, he was fully engrossed.
The movie starts and ends beautifully, with two nighttime races bookending the rest. The deadly cross-country rally in between has its brainless pleasures as well. The rhythms of the action sequences, edited by Zach Staenberg and Roger Barton with a maniacal edge, are frantic but not quite incoherent, which these days is saying something. A typical 10-second race sequence begins with an aerial perspective of a mountaintop road; then, without conventional cuts, we're inside the cockpit with Speed, and then, zwooop, we're whisked inside Trixie's cockpit a few hundred yards behind him, then, zwooop, back for a close-up of Speed. Such illusions of fluidity take the computer-generated sting out of the proceedings.
Hacking their way through exposition, the Wachowskis' skills haven't improved much since those Oracle scenes in their first "Matrix" picture. "Speed, before you go," says John Goodman's gruff Pops Racer, the owner of the family racing business, "I'd like to say a few things." What seems like several hours later, Hirsch's Speed catches the rest of his family listening to his heart-to-heart. "You were listening the whole time?" he asks. He may as well have added: "I mean, that was a lot of unnecessary dialogue!"
The Wachowskis leave it to a strong cast of earnest, gently playful actors to untangle such thickets. The aggressively multinational ensemble of "Speed Racer," featuring everyone from Korean vocalist Rain as one of Speed's rivals to Narges Rashidi as "Persian Announcer," recalls '60s vehicles such as "Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies." And while Christina Ricci may not have much to do as Trixie, she's second to none when it comes to a skeptical arch of her left eyebrow, accompanied by composer Michael Giacchino's tingggg on the triangle.
Straight out of the TV series, not to mention such later time-wasters as "Wacky Races," the gimmicky weaponry—spear hooks, oil slicks, buzz saws—hasn't changed since the old days. Only the technology has changed. The film runs an overgenerous two hours and 15 minutes, and it sags in its midsection. But of course Boomers can relate to that. Not everybody can create a freshly conceived visual universe. The Wachowskis can.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "Speed Racer."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times