Everything moves in The Wachowski Brother’s adaptation of Speed Racer, everything, except for sometimes the camera. Tony Scott likes to make “talking head” scenes interesting by having the camera roll back and forth in front of the actors. I laughed out loud when in Man on Fire the camera dollies left and right while Denzel and Walken are grilling burgers. It was the most action packed cook-out ever.
Well, the Brothers say no to camera movement and instead take those “talking heads” and float them in front of the camera, left-to-right, sometimes right-to-left. Sometimes after the head floats by the people are talking in the background just behind it. It’s an effect that at times is invigorating and other times simply annoying. You don’t know where one character is at in relationship to just about anything around him. Everything in the movie seems to inhabit a fourth dimension.
This can also be said for almost all of the performances. From John Goodman (who is a national treasure right up there with Cole Porter and Jesse James) to Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, and the surprisingly good Mathew Fox (redeeming himself after the ridiculously bad Vantage Point); all are able to find the humanity in larger than life characters. The only person who seems to be living in a three dimensional world is the star himself Emile Hirsch. While everyone is having a good old time at a party for the ages, Hirsch seems to have shown up for a funeral.
I wanted to shake the kid and tell him to have some fun. But everything is so internalized and self-serious. He’s trying so hard to “act” that he’s forgetting to perform, which is what this fantasia of speeding cars and hyper-realistic colors needs, some good old fashioned scenery chewing. And the scenery certainly looks appetizing enough.
In Into the Wild Hirsch showed more single minded joy for his calling than at any point in Speed Racer. Not once did I feel that he enjoyed racing. Sure he was driven to race. But the one thing Speed is supposed to do is grab that child like essence in all of us and say “Look at the fun that you can have”. It’s supposed to be a vicarious experience. But when everything is buried so deep down in the “acting”, in trying to understand who Speed is, there’s nothing to hold on to and the character disappears.
Not all of the blame can be placed on Hirsch. The Wachoski’s after put the character to the page and directed the Hirsch. Maybe it’s that the Brothers like their leads to be a little wooden, but even Neo was allowed a moment of awe and pleasure when he stated, “I know kung-fu.”
With the thin lead you’re left grabbing for the Wachowski’s absolutely incredible and truly inspired car races and action scenes. Cars zip past, half “drifting” half flying through the air on tracks just wide enough for the cars themselves. These tricked out contraptions spring off the ground, flip and bump into one another like a Matrix-style bumper-cars show. It’s truly incredible the technical skill that it took to pull off the intricate choreography between 6 cars filling the screen at once. So that even when you can’t quite tell what’s going on, you still think its pretty cool.
Sometimes though the special effects hide the logic of the scene. To this day I have no idea what Speed did to take out the two cars at the end of the final race. Deus ex machina anyone? And while I was able to follow the action, I wonder if a child would. Everything zips past so quickly and frantically, that you almost have to know Advanced Placement Geometry to follow things sometimes.
But nothing is more thrilling than when Speed’s family comes together to give what-for to the corporate baddies wanting to fix the race.
I wonder why this did so poorly and why reviewers hated it so much, it was far more innovative and enjoyable than many of last years bevy of sequels (Spider-Man, Pirates). It’s a little long in the teeth, but in the end you can’t help but allow this not perfect movie to win you over, if only for a little bit.