“Speed Racer” Can’t Get out of its Own Way – 2 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

It is alas ironic that “Speed Racer,” the Wachowski Brothers’s live-action adaptation of the series that originated as the Japanese anime “Mach GoGoGo,” is anything but swift. For all its colorful, dizzying, quick-splice freneticism, it reminds of the frightened cartoon cat whose legs are moving so fast that it achieves no forward motion.

Yet, there is a curious appeal in its quirkiness, a nuttiness that implies there just has to be something more to this helter-skelter, neo-campy lampoon of every racing movie cliché. Either that or it’s some failed experiment in combating attention deficit disorder, recycled as a feature film. In any case, that surprise around the corner never materializes.

Doubtless, the target audience of this PG-rated, mixed-media bag of special effects won’t be as confounded by the infinite mass of minutiae and lore as will their adult counterparts. Bob Dylan’s observation, “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” is once again applicable. For kids, it’s antique.

But we, who weren’t brought up with the computer always there and have known Presidents going further back than the first Clinton, can’t help but be a bit amazed. The Wachowskis, who broke new ground with “The Matrix” franchise, prove here in a virtual showcase of things CGI that there’s still plenty new magic to be pulled from the hat.

Unfortunately, whether an intentional part of the hyperkinetic effect or the fallout of its technological indulgence, the f/x parade doesn’t proceed in any particular order. Of course, if you hang on to this cutting-edge bronco long enough to scratch the gloss and grok its gist, it’s just the same old jive. A troubled young racecar driver chases a ghost.

Said title character, a Grand Prix hopeful portrayed by Emile Hirsch, is haunted by the unclear legacy of older brother Rex, a once upon a time racing great whose death remains shrouded in mystery. Now in the cockpit at the family’s Racer Racing, run by Pops Racer (John Goodman), Speed is hell-bent on vindicating the fallen driver.

His determination and skill don’t go unnoticed. Upstaging a retinue of British corporate moguls and other gangsters is Roger Allam’s namesake and proprietor of mighty Royalton Industries. The megalomaniac wants Speed to drive for him. In a scene that takes an acerbic swipe at college recruiting, he invites the whole family for a tour.

Mom Racer, played by Susan Sarandon, is all ooh la la. Pops is cautiously impressed: “We can design and build a new car in thirty-six hours.” Money, money, money. But ultimately, it’s like when George Bailey almost accepts a job from Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Speed draws back. There is something dank and unkosher here.

Besides…Pops is against it. Racer Racing has never accepted outside sponsorship. Royalton, a tycoon not used to being denied, rants like a spoiled child. Shades of Greek plays and their omens, he bleats that Speed will never win without the conglomerates on his side…that the powers that be have been fixing the Grand Prix for many, many years.

“Oh, yeah!?” says Speed, and you can guess the rest…all two hours and fifteen minutes of it. Navigating through the ensuing morass of twists, turns and endless characters, each with their own mishigoss, soon grows wearisome.

Speed’s impish little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his chimpanzee, Chim Chim, routinely attempt comedy relief within the pseudo-serious farce. But the blips of weirdness, delivered merry-go-round style instead of with an ebb and flow, are more curious than amusing. The film establishes a unique formula, and then beats it to death.

Nevertheless, Christina Ricci as Speed’s devoted girlfriend, Trixie, adds a soupçon of eccentricity and visual exoticness to the scenario. And Taejo Togokhan (Rain) as Speed’s Eastern counterpart supplies the inscrutable subtext. Proposing an alliance, the scion of Togokhan Motors says he, too, wants to save the family business from Royalton control.

But the real mystique belongs to none other than Racer X (Matthew Fox). We’re not supposed to know the identity of this masked fairy god racer who always arrives just in the nick of time to help our hero. But while it’s probably a joy to be eight and figuring out this old plot ploy for the first time, anyone over that age who can’t is in real trouble.

Deeper messages in what is essentially Johnny’s first anti-establishment primer, including a diatribe against the new feudalism big business continues to forge, may put off reactionary parents. However, if only concerned with doing your perfunctory duty, then just buy Jr. some popcorn, set “Speed Racer” on automatic pilot and enjoy a snooze.

“Speed Racer,” rated PG, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski and stars Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci and John Goodman. Running time: 135 minutes

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