Let’s dispense with the lazy racing analogies early: Speed Racer has one hell of a fifth gear. What’s problematic is that it starts there.
Paced less like the Daytona 500 and more like a sprinter booking top speed in a 10k run, the Wachowskis’ first official directorial effort since Matrix Revolutions seems intent on wearing the viewer down early. It’s either that or they trust that their target audience – i.e. anyone accustomed to the gaudy frenzy of video games from Sonic the Hedgehog onward – is mentally adept enough to process visual information being spat out at rates that would drive Yasujiro Ozu into a homicidal rage (now there’s one Japanese filmmaker the Wachoskis have defiantly refused to sample). This is a film that challenges the viewer to redefine their notions of sensory overload; it assumes that the younger generation of filmgoers are ready for a more furious assault. Remember the gag in Back to the Future Part II where Marty McFly’s kid watches eight different channels of television at once? That’s no longer a satire of distraction; it’s a tribute to multitasking.
The Wachowskis aren’t after nonstop disorientation; essentially, they’re taking baby steps forward by wedding an old school anime (Speed Racer debuted in the late 1960s) with their state-of-the-art aesthetic. As they did with their pop art masterpiece The Matrix, they’re challenging mainstream moviegoers to get with a more ecstatic form of convention: whereas Neo’s journey was about reinterpreting reality, Speed’s quest has to do with a zen corralling of his past, present and future. He will transcend the corruption of his sport and become a new, purer being of competitor by accepting that where he was and where he’ll be are, spiritually, of a piece. And each victory shall be a rebirth.
One needn’t look too deeply to see the Star Child implications of the final Grand Prix race in Speed Racer (CHUD‘s own Andre Dellamorte noted as much during our screening, and I see that Premiere‘s Glenn Kenny spotted it, too), but the overt philosophical underpinnings never puncture the innocence of what is, at heart, a kids’ movie about family as salvation (it’s Paul Brickman’s Men Don’t Leave at mach five). And while the major narrative beats are yawningly familiar, they’re deployed in such a counterintuitive, frankly messy fashion that one never gets a clear bead on the proceedings. Like the cars drifting up and down the track, Speed Racer is gleefully all over the place.
And that’s one of the film’s major flaws: the formal audacity is heavily leaned on as a diversion from the dearth of storytelling ingenuity. Structurally, the Wachowskis aren’t working with much more than a straightforward sports parable. True, a little conviction and a heap of stylistic flourishes can throw some sexy back on an old jalopy – which is why this hero’s haphazard journey isn’t quite as tiresome as it might’ve been in an unaffected, recognizable reality. But the been there/done factor is still present. And 129 minutes is a long distance to travel for what is, surface-wise, a gloss on The Natural.
Still, Levinson’s film at least gave the viewer a semi-tangible sense of Roy Hobbs’s gifts; Robert Redford rearing back and blasting a slo-mo fastball past Joe Don Baker’s “The Whammer” may have been movie bullshit, but anyone who’s thrown a baseball could imagine what it might feel like to have a lightning bolt for an arm. Unfortunately, very few mortals have ever driven a race car around a track at 200 mph-plus, and even even fewer have slid behind the wheel of a ride outfitted with grappling hooks, spikes, catapults and other nifty gadgets. And, try as they might (e.g. there’s a clever opening sequence which finds Speed chasing the apparition of his brother), the Wachowskis just can’t completely convey the instinctual, hand-eye, nerves-of-steel brilliance that makes Speed the Michael Jordan of the motor world. Ultimately, he’s just a handsome kid zipping about a racetrack made of 1s and 0s.
But the Wachowskis have never been terribly interested in real-world triumph; they prefer multidimensional epiphanies. And while it’s the unconditional love of his family that centers him, his oneness with the machine bears an unmistakable similarity to Neo seeing the Matrix. Once again, the Wachowskis are exploding normalcy by championing acceptance. Exceptional doesn’t come in a syringe or a regulation-skirting engine; it’s innate. That’s a valuable lesson for kids growing up in a culture of cheating. One hopes they can see past the flash and the fury to take the message to heart.
A most simple elegance. — By Nick Nunziata