I have a confession to make. In a blatant act of generational heresy, I was never that into the Star Wars movies. When I watched Star Wars upon its 1998 re-release, I was flabbergasted that such silly, stilted fluff could incite such feverish passion.
To me, all the fatal flaws fanboys bitched about in regards to the prequels—stiff dialogue, wooden performances, a convoluted plot, and mindless spectacle divorced from human emotion—were there from the very beginning, though I quite like Empire Strikes Back. I envied the misplaced passion and community of Star Wars geeks, that comforting sense of belonging that comes with knowing that you inexplicably aren't the only Poindexter in the world who knows the identity of the best man at Boba Fett's wedding, or who has the blueprints for the Death Star rattling around somewhere inside your brainbone.
So throughout my filmgoing adventures, I kept looking for a franchise that would mean to me what Star Wars meant to so many of my peers. In 1999, I thought I'd found it in The Matrix. The Wachowskis' iconic blockbuster combined the visceral excitement of top-flight popcorn fare with the moody pop profundity of a great comic book. It represented the perfect fusion of ideas and spectacle, technology and storytelling. It was smart, it was kinetic, and it introduced countless technological innovations—most notably the concept of "bullet time"—that have been co-opted, stolen, and transformed into clichés in the ensuing years. It somehow even managed to make the once and future Theodore Logan of San Dimas, California, into a convincing action hero.
We have been inundated with so many mindless follow-ups that the phrase "arbitrary sequel" seems inherently redundant. Sequels are, by definition, perfunctory pieces of studio product created in a bubbling cauldron of money-lust and shameless opportunism. Yet The Matrix begged for a sequel. It introduced such a dense, multi-layered universe that I couldn't wait to see what happened next.
I entered The Matrix Reloaded with sky-high expectations and a palpable sense of excitement that quickly gave way to a gnawing, empty feeling as the film sunk further and further down a rabbit hole of unforgivable suckitude. The relatively clear, lucid throughline of the Wachowskis' original—Everydude uncovers dark secrets of the universe, becomes cyber-messiah—was replaced with a muddy morass of subplots and conflicts I couldn't care less about.
Like Peggy Lee in the Lieber-Stoller standard, at the end of The Matrix: Reloaded, I left the theater wondering, "Is that all there is?" I felt more than just crushing disappointment. I felt deceived. I felt angry at the Wachowskis for tricking me into caring about a fantastical science-fiction universe that, upon further consideration, sucked. The Matrix Reloaded plunged so deeply and irretrievably into its own personal mythology that it lost track of the human element that made the first film so resonant.
The Matrix famously teased and tantalized audiences with the enigmatic tagline "What is the Matrix?" Its sequels lost and alienated fans with wildly convoluted messes that replaced that question with a vexed "Who the hell cares?" By the time the second Matrix sequel rolled around, I had gone from illusioned to disillusioned, from gruntled to disgruntled. I had completely lost interest. I couldn't even make it past the first hour of The Matrix: Honestly, Why Are We Even Bothering Any More? As regular readers of this column should know, I do not give up on movies very easily. I consequently don't know how the series ends, though my editor Keith tells me it concluded with Keanu Reeves learning that love truly is the fifth element.
Between the release of The Matrix and the thudding anticlimax of The Matrix: Revolutions, the Wachowskis went from being the wunderkinds who dreamed up an instant classic to those self-indulgent assholes who destroyed the Matrix franchise. The Matrix trilogy still made a fuckload of money, but the Wachowskis' status as boy wonders (almost a full decade after The Matrix conquered the world, they're barely into their 40s) took a massive hit.
After the rapidly diminishing returns of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions, the Wachowskis masterminded V For Vendetta, then retreated into the ostensibly safe, lucrative realm of special-effects-heavy cartoon adaptations to bring Speed Racer to the big screen. It must have looked like a sure thing on paper: the blockbuster creators of The Matrix revamping a beloved cult oddity. Yet the $120 million Joel Silver production bombed spectacularly, grossing under $19 million in its opening weekend, and sinking like a stone immediately afterward. By the time I caught up with Speed Racer last Thursday, it was playing only one show a day at our local 21-screen megaplex, in the prized 1:05 p.m. slot.
I should probably concede here that I know nothing about Speed Racer except that it was a very popular attraction at the video store where Keith and I used to work. It wasn't quite as popular as Clownfuckers or Bathroom Sluts 3 (though, to be fair, the concluding entry in the Bathroom Sluts trilogy did clear up all sorts of issues left dangling at the end of Bathroom Sluts 2) but popular all the same.
Speed Racer the movie isn't ultimately about actors or plot or character arcs. No, it's about shiny things going zoom in happy color land. That isn't the problem. It's everything surrounding the scenes of shiny things going zoom that proves problematic. Speed Racer condenses several films' worth of exposition and backstory into an opening 20 minutes that darts back and forth in time relentlessly as it unpacks the complicated mythology of a racing dynasty called The Racers. We are in the land of archetypes here, where names are destiny; if you're born with a telltale moniker like Speed Racer, a humdrum career in accounting is clearly not an option.
In a giddy sugar-rush of barely coherent mythmaking we learn that plucky Speed Racer (played by Nicholas Elia as a boy and Emile Hirsch as a man-child) grew up in the outsized shadow of older brother Rex Racer, a hotshot daredevil of the racetrack who sped his way into the history books before dying in a fiery, mysterious crash under a cloud of suspicion. As a boy, Speed exists in a private fantasy world of speed and adrenaline. In a nifty early sequence, he sketches a car and a racetrack, then watches in rapt delight as his crude drawing comes to life, with himself in the starring role. In a rhyming scene not much later, Speed's obnoxious little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his chimpanzee sidekick Chim Chim leap inside an anime program and begin striking kung-fu poses. It was at this point that I started thinking, "Man, I wish I was high right now. This movie is wasted on the sober and lucid."
Speed Racer's breathless first half-hour dazzles the eye and clouds the mind with a relentless onslaught of lurid neon, candy-colored dreamscapes, and gaudy eye candy. Watching it is like being inside a busted kaleidoscope. It's downright hypnotic in its sensory overload. Then, alas, the plot begins to kick in. I have seldom seen a film so accomplished visually, yet so unaccomplished from a storytelling and emotional perspective.
Speed Racer is aggressively, shamelessly, and purposefully artificial. Adapting it into a roller coaster or a videogame would be redundant; it's already a roller coaster, a videogame, and a live-action cartoon. But it barely qualifies as a movie. After the opening frenzy of backstory and exposition, we're catapulted to the present day, where a now-grown Hirsch is tearing up the world of racing with a nifty little metallic phallus of a car designed by his dad, "Pops Racer" (John Goodman).
The Racers are defiantly independent in a world of conglomerates and compromise, but temptation comes calling in the form of an evil tycoon (Roger Allam) desperate to recruit Hirsch to race for him. Allam makes an indelible impression early on. Popping up at the Racers' doorstep with a shit-eating grin, bad intentions, and a surplus of oily charm, Allam waxes orgasmic over the breakfast prepared by Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon). "Pancakes are love!" he gushes in a fit of Eddie Haskell-like sycophancy. Now there's a tagline waiting to happen. Is it just me, or is Allam a dead ringer for professional drunkard/provocateur Christopher Hitchens?
Before long, Allam's reptilian true self oozes out. When Hirsch politely rejects his overtures, Allam's creepy burlesque of kindness disappears, and he hips Hirsch to the way the racing world really operates: It's a rigged game ruled by rich old men in smoky rooms for the sole purpose of driving up stock prices. Then Allam more or less disappears from the film, popping up from time to time to seethe villainously and push the plot forward.
When Allam threatens to destroy Hirsch's career, the plucky driver teams up with love interest Christina Ricci, masked mystery driver "Racer X," and a Japanese rival played by Stephen Colbert's arch-nemesis Rain to compete in The Crucible, the same hellish race that killed Hirsch's brother. Or did it? Could this Racer X fellow possibly be Rex Racer in disguise?
The Wachowskis apparently had two very strong visions for Speed Racer that ultimately cancel each other out. They were going to transform it into a giddy, goofy live-action cartoon, a campy retro romp that delights in the synthetic, shameless, and shimmering. Secondly, they were going to create a sober family drama about a tormented, brooding young man who must overcome a formative trauma, corporate corruption, and his father's doubts and fears in order to realize his potential.
Alas, the Wachowskis are a lot better at making shiny things go zoom than they are at getting audiences to care about the people inside the shiny things. Speed Racer is a feast for the senses; every frame is filled with neat little details competing for the audience's attention. How can the actors playing comic-book archetypes possibly compete?
All the Wachowski brothers' latest has going for it, ultimately, is spectacle and speed. Yet it continually grinds to a screeching halt so Hirsch can have heart-to-heart talks with his family and friends. It's as if the Superman ride at Great America stopped every 40 seconds for a sentimental speech about Superman's complicated relationship with his adopted planet, and his angst at being the only surviving member of his alien race.
This is made grindingly apparent by a montage late in the film where Hirsch, at a crucial crossroads in his life and career, reflects back on the heady conversations he's had about his family's past and his professional future. The flashbacks are supposed to lend gravity and meaning to Hirsch's quest. Instead, they merely underline just how spectacularly the film's emotional elements fail. It's a greatest-misses compilation of dialogue that falls flat, too-pat emotional epiphanies, and labored attempts at investing a pop-art cartoon with substance. It turns out you can't be Batman & Robin and a racing-world East Of Eden at the same time after all.
Just about the only major character that Hirsch doesn't have a big, clumsy, obvious emotional scene with is Chim Chim. I wouldn't be surprised if the deleted scenes on the Speed Racer DVD rectify this grievous oversight with a heartwarming scene where Hirsch gazes deep into Chim Chim's uncomprehending eyes and says "Chim Chim, when we first met, I was initially put off by the constant screeching and feces-hurling. But you alone saw that I had a passion for racing that couldn't be denied and an innate sense of integrity that makes victory ultimately much sweeter." By this point, the chimpanzee probably would have nodded off out of boredom. Who could blame him?
A lot of people hate every ape they see, from chimpan-A to chimpan-Z. I'm not one of them. But the presence of a zany primate in a prominent role comes at a steep price—namely the presence of Chim Chim's constant companion Spritle, a fat, candy-crazed little brat who's the migraine-inducing Jar-Jar Binks of the Speed Racer universe. Me-sa thinks his role should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Litt takes a strong, oft-reiterated anti-girls, anti-cooties stand that the filmmakers apparently share. It's telling that a scene where a frustrated Hirsch and Racer X (played with terse, robotic anti-charisma by Matthew Fox) grind their gleaming metallic automotive phalluses against each other to blow off steam is charged with far more sexual tension than any scene involving Hirsch and Ricci. "I haven't been thrown like that in years," Fox enthuses in a line as queasily homoerotic as anything in Top Gun. Get a room, guys. It's safe to assume that Hirsch can ride Fox's tail anytime.
Like Litt, Speed Racer seems to feel strongly that girls are icky. Of course it doesn't help that Ricci has lost so much weight that she now resembles E.T. Think about it—the giant, saucer-like eyes on a tiny oval face, the broad forehead, the unmistakably alien air and long, elegant neck. Where have you seen them before? I wasn't sure if Ricci was trying to try to help Hirsch win revenge, or trying to phone her home planet.
On an equally queasy-making note, Hirsch and his best gal look disconcertingly like each other. In a car scene at Makeout Point, the two look less like lovers than fraternal twins, though at this point, Hirsch might just be a little prettier than Ricci, with her gee-whiz naiveté and dialogue straight out of Hanna Barbera's Big Book Of Outdated '60s Slang ("Hubba hubba," "Jeepers," "Cool beans.") Nor is Ricci the only actor saddled with groan-inducing one-liners. After a mysterious karate man threatens the Racers, Ricci breathlessly asks, "Was that a ninja?" To which Goodman quips, "More like a non-ja!"
Cinema is more than just a universal language and a collective waking dream that crosses boundaries of language, culture, and ideology. It's also the greatest tool ever created to facilitate looking at boobs. The Wachowskis lost track of that with Speed Racer to the film's detriment, creatively and commercially. There's a reason that people who wouldn't be able to tell Boba Fett from Bob Hope never forget Princess Leia's gold bikini. Speed Racer never quite makes it past the "girls are gross" stage of sexual and intellectual development.
In a strange way, the caliber of actors in Speed Racer work against the film. If the Wachowskis had hired cheeseballs like Casper Van Dien, George Hamilton, and Melanie Griffith for lead roles, the "emotional" scenes undoubtedly would have engendered great, cathartic gales of unintentional laughter. Instead, they hired actors good enough to mitigate the camp factor, but not good enough to imbue the drama with life or vigor.
This speaks to Speed Racer's central flaw: It's stuck somewhere between kitsch and heavy drama, outright ridiculousness and moody intensity. It doesn't seem to know whether to wholly embrace camp, or to keep it at arm's length, which is not a problem any movie featuring an extended end-credit sequence with a chimpanzee mugging for the camera should have.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco