In their latest effort, Larry and Andy Wachowski are not content to peddle sound and fury signifying nothing; the Matrix creators here revel in a digital orgy of meaningless sound, fury and computer-generated DayGlo color. This may be the least special special-effects movie ever made.
Live-action motion pictures based on vintage cartoon programs do not constitute a particularly distinguished tradition in the first place. It’s anybody’s guess what inspired the fraternal filmmakers to channel their not inconsiderable talents into a genre that boasts such timeless works of cinema as Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby Doo and The Flintstones. Popeye was so jawdroppingly awful it marked a career low for no fewer than three major talents — its star, Robin Williams, Harry Nilsson (who wrote the score) and its director, the legendary Robert Altman. It doesn’t get worse than that. At least it didn’t — until now.
Speed Racer is based on a Japanese anime series called “Mach GoGoGo,” which ran in syndication on American television under its new name during the ’60s. As a boy, I didn’t make a point of watching the show, but I did note, when I happened on it in the course of surfing our four channels, that its art design offered a refreshing alternative to the aesthetic of homegrown staples of the day such as “Yogi the Bear,” “Quickdraw McGraw” and “Bugs Bunny.” I also got the impression that, aside from speedy racing, it wasn’t really about much of anything.
In adapting the series for the big screen, the Wachow-skis unfortunately have hyper-focused on art design and ignored their obligation as storytellers. It may have a price tag of more than $100 million and a running time of 135 minutes, but their candy-colored extravaganza isn’t really about much of anything, either. Emile Hirsch gives a wooden performance as the title character. He’s the middle son in the Racer family, and has a younger brother named Spritle (Paulie Litt) and an older one named Rex (Scott Porter). Pops Racer (John Goodman) runs a family business building racecars.
When his older brother perishes in a racing accident, Speed vows to take his place on the track and become the greatest driver in the game. Which he does almost immediately, thereby attracting the attention of gazillionaire Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), whose multinational company also builds racecars — but in a corrupt, corporate-giant way, as opposed to the virtuous little-guy way Pops does the same thing.
Royalton offers to sponsor Speed. In addition to making him famous and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, the deal will require him to throw the occasional race. As it turns out, the sport is rigged by captains of industry who somehow manipulate it to drive up the market price of their stock. Our hero declines the offer, of course, thereby earning the enmity of his evil suitor, who throws a hissy fit and threatens to crush him with “the unassailable might of money.”
That’s about it in terms of story. The rest is racing — and, as noisy, frenetic and neon-drenched as the computer-generated competitions are, they are dull. Unless, I suppose, you’re 6 years old and have never played a video game.
Where the centerpiece races are tedious, other aspects of the movie are just plain annoying. The little brother is an irksome gnome who drains what life there is from every scene he invades. Even worse, he has a pet monkey who goes everywhere with him, and the Wachowskis milk the chimp for cheap laughs at every opportunity.
Then there’s the film’s leaden dialogue. As a fellow driver named Racer X, Matthew Fox of “Lost” truly does seem lost and is forced to deliver many of the script’s most inane lines. For example, there’s the time he pontificates to Hirsch about how they should change driving without allowing driving to change them, or some such nonsense. Later, when the newcomer has crossed the finish line ahead of Royalton’s dirty-dealing lackeys, an awestruck spectator exclaims to Fox, “This could change the world!” To which the actor is required by contract to respond, “It already has.”
Exsqueeze me? What anyone who had anything to do with this empty-headed spectacle was thinking is beyond me. I can’t think of a single respect in which Speed Racer is not a drag. From start to finish, the latest from the Wachowskis proves an exercise in sensory-overload silliness that takes itself way too seriously. The summer movie season may have barely begun, but we need no longer wonder when its biggest disappointment will pull into town.