Speed Racer

Director    Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Starring    Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman
Release    9 MAY (US) 9 MAY (UK)    Certificate PG
3 stars


11th May 2008

Some nine years after they first introduced the world to bullet-time with The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers continue their obsession with Japanese culture and cutting-edge technology with Speed Racer - a CG-injected update of the largely unseen '60s cartoon 'Mahha GoGoGo'. But while The Matrix drew you in with its post-apocalyptic man versus machine ultimatum, Speed Racer is happy to let the tech take the wheel while plot takes a back seat. The result is a live-action cartoon that won't win any awards for storytelling but is likely to send the SFX industry into a tailspin.

Speed Racer (Hirsch) is a youngster who lives and breathes racing - as he says himself: "It's the only thing I know how to do and I gotta do something." Following the untimely death of his older brother Rex during a race, Speed is dead-set on making Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops (John Goodman) proud by doing what he does best, namely burning rubber on the track and climbing the ranks in the racing circuit. However, when he turns down corporate sponsorship from bilious billionaire Royalton (Roger Allam), Speed discovers the awful truth - professional racing is fixed and the money men are now gunning for him to teach him a lesson. With the help of the masked and mysterious Racer X (Fox) and the ingenuity of his pit-crew - including girlfriend Trixie (Ricci) - Speed sets out to leave the rest of the field choking on his dust.

With Speed Racer, the Wachowski's vibrant visual language takes the stage front and centre - this is a movie that exists almost entirely in CG and digital imagery. Utilising a new technique which brings every pixel in frame into sharp focus, Speed Racer is a dazzling tech demo; gaudy enough to choke a clown but bustling with activity and shimmering with 21st century techno-glitter. In this universe, red isn't just red, it's super-mega-ultra retina-scorching cherry red. Colours burn so bright they give you a neon sun tan. If you weren't epileptic when you went into the cinema, you almost certainly will be when you come out - see it at the IMAX and your head may well explode in a shower of technicolour brain matter. Exiting into the drab real world is like walking onto a reel of Schindler's List.

When the Wachowskis get into top gear, Speed Racer really motors. The breakneck race scenes are truly impressive technical achievements, synapse-frazzling CG showreels that will leave you giddy and breathless with exhilaration - think the Star Wars: Episode I pod-races fuelled by Sunny Delight. Racing bears little resemblance to any motorsports we know of - cars twist, jump and pirouette on the track as if it were ice and vehicles are not constrained by downforce or the laws of gravity. Logic was obviously not invited to this party. This is Wacky Races powered by Enzo Ferrari and designed by Andy Warhol - candy-coloured carnage with a turbo-charged engine.

Alas, in between races, old habits die hard - the brothers W once again show they're more comfortable working with machine than man. There's little consideration for the PG audience as plot complications threaten to throw a spanner in the works: how many kids are going to know about matters of IP infringement or corporate mergers? More importantly, how many adults are going to care? When the rest of the movie zips by at 800mph, filler scenes feel like they're stuck in reverse - you may find yourself absent-mindedly revving a non-existent accelerator in anger.

The cast do their best with a clunky script but you can't help shake the feeling that they're playing second fiddle to the CG and they know it. Hirsch has the rather thankless task of fleshing out a distinctly 2D character, reacting to the race action with a succession of tough guy faces - emotions include 'What the..?', 'Now you've done it!' and 'This time it's personal!' Ricci looks more game for a laugh - those gigantic animated eyes of hers finally coming in useful - and provides the movie's eye candy, wearing a series of risqu' get-ups and short skirts that will surely be wasted on the movie's pre-pubescent audience. Matthew Fox won't be winning any new fans as the masked Racer X and is impossible to take seriously once you realise he's basically dressed in a leather gimp suit throughout. And someone, somewhere knows why John Goodman plays Speed's trusty Pops as a fat, lesbian Mario, but it's not us. If there's such a thing as green screen fatigue, the cast of Speed Racer are clearly suffering from it.

It's a favourite clich' of naff film reviewers, but Speed Racer really is a rollercoaster ride. In order to enjoy the thrilling, zero-G downhill rushes, you've occasionally got to put up with the monotonous click-click-click of the ride going through the motions, taking you uphill before your next white-knuckle descent. It's the price you pay for an unparalleled assault on the senses - be grateful you're being given time to blink at all. Expect anything deeper than a puddle and you'll be in for a bumpy ride, but heck - that's kinda the point. If nothing else, Speed Racer will eventually make a kickass sampler for your new HD telly and Blu-Ray player. Just make sure you dose up on aspirins first. Ali

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