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Speed Racer (2008)


  • Review: ** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Emile Hirsch, Nicholas Elia, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Ariel Winter, Scott Porter, Benno Frmann, Kick Gurry, Roger Allam
  • Director: The Wachowski Brothers
  • Screenplay: The Wachowski Brothers (Adapted from the TV series)
  • Length: 135 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of action, some violence and language.

Oh how quickly the mighty can fall. This theme is not only befitting the film Speed Racer, but also its creators Andy and Larry Wachowski, better known as The Wachowski Brothers.

The Wachowskis' decision to adapt '80s animé series Speed Racer was one that had potential. Their visual style and ability to blend live-action and computer-generated effects had been proven with The Matrix films seemed the perfect fit for the adaptation, so where did it all go wrong? There is no individual aspect that went wrong, but a whole range of issues all stemming from the Wachowski Brothers' obvious belief in their own self-importance.

The entire premise of the big screen version of Speed Racer is that a megalomaniacal racing engine manufacturer wants to secure design rights to a powerful new engine and then become the sole-manufacturer of the race-winning engine. However, his attempts to quash the hopes and dreams of Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) and his family lead him to make a series of missteps that permit Speed and company to triumph. Normally, I wouldn't reveal plot details and, to an extent, I haven't, but it's clear early on that this relatively linear plot will be free of plot twists. It's nothing you can't take a guess about near the beginning and it has little to do with the film's only significant twist, which doesn't reveal until the very end.

Hirsch, hot off his much-ballyhooed performance in Sean Penn's Into the Wild, delivers a cheesy portrayal of a young racecar driver who thinks of nothing more than racing and making his late brother proud. He spends most of the film glaring or posturing in cartoonish ways. Although this may fit thematically with an adaptation of a cartoon, it's still an unbelievably annoying performance.

John Goodman has done the TV adaptation thing before and should know better. After The Flintstones sank like a rock, he's at it again this time playing clan patriarch Pops Racer. At his side is the ever-present Susan Sarandon hamming it up as Mom Racer.

Roger Allam is the ultimate in cheesy megalomania as Royalton owner E. P. Royalton. His is the kind of performance that thrashes about so loudly on the screen, that some might say it's too outlandish not to be good and I must admit it takes some guts to do it. However, the only performances that really rate any praise are those of Christina Ricci as Speed's girlfriend Trixie, Scott Porter as his elder brother Rex and Matthew Fox as Racer X, the guy who tries to teach Speed what life and racing is all about. They aren't the most fantastic of performances, but they add some sparkle to an otherwise dismal ensemble.

The one thing the film excels at is visual flair. Using startlingly sharp colors, the Art Direction and Costume Design give Speed Racer a vibrancy that is necessary to transport the audience into this unusual world. Production Designer Owen Paterson owes much of his designs' successes to the Visual Effects designers who make most of the film work.

The Wachowski Brothers have a style that is relatively unique in the industry. Their effects often make up for plot inconsistencies and an inability to command great performances. And whether the film is a huge success or a colossal flop, its strength will lie in the devoted fans who will applaud the film's colorful style and push the film towards cult status within the next few years. And that's all the Wachowskis can really hope for at this point, but thankfully, they have the continually disappointing M. Night Shyamalan as proof that they can probably still get work even with productions that are disappointing departures from their initial triumph.