On one level, the Wachowski brothers' "Speed Racer," with its hyper-frantic action and ultra-scrumptious Jolly Rancher color design, is a kid flick unlike any other. Viewers of more advanced years, however — say, 13 and up — may feel like they're being beaten to death with lollipops. The picture is also kind of long (two hours and change). Will the tykes sit still for it? Will anybody?
It is said (although not by them, since they no longer do press) that Andy and Larry Wachowski were childhood fans of the "Speed Racer" TV series, a Japanese anime import of the 1960s that was dubbed into English for U.S. syndication. In choosing to turn this property into a feature (it's their first directorial foray since the "Matrix" trilogy collapsed in exhaustion five years ago), the Wachowskis opted for an almost totally computer-generated comic-book look. Actual actors are involved in the film (and some pretty snazzy actual cars, too), but the world in which they operate clearly orbits Planet Manga: Jewel-like cities shimmer in the night, Jello-y pools beckon wetly, and fat white marshmallow clouds drift across impossibly perfect cerulean skies. If the colors in this movie were any more saturated, they'd be dribbling off the screen.
The story is pure milk-and-cookies. The Racer family — Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon), teenage Speed (Emile Hirsch) and pre-teen Spritle (Paulie Litt) — are all car nuts. Pops builds them, the kids race them, and Mom cheers the gang on. An older son, Rex (Scott Porter), has already bought the farm in pursuit of the world racing championship (we see him in flashbacks). Now his brother Speed — installed in one of Pops' most awesome creations, a screaming white Mach 5 — is preparing to follow in the family tradition, with the chaste support of his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci — with her pert bangs and big liquid eyes, she looks like an anime character herself).
Speed is obviously a Grand Prix ace in the making, and has thus drawn the attention of a sinister industrialist named Royalton (sneer-master Roger Allam, of "V for Vendetta"). When the idealistic young hotshot turns down a big-bucks sponsorship deal Royalton has offered him, the malevolent mogul taunts him with an ugly secret: The top car races are fixed, and always have been — nice guys do finish last. Then he dispatches a gang of thugs to take the potentially troublesome kid out of the running, permanently. Also endangered, for more obscure reasons, is another young driver named Taejo (South Korean pop star Rain, whose effortless cool portends a busy film future). These two outnumbered wheelmen aren't alone, though. Weighing in on their side are a tenacious sleuth, Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann), and a mysterious masked outrider called Racer X (Matthew Fox).
It's a simple story, but the Wachowskis don't play it for camp; they appear to be genuinely engaged with its themes of faith and family. Not that anyone's likely to care. The picture is a monument to kinetic excess. The overpowered race cars on display crash, careen and sometimes fly along endless, looping tracks that wind through tropical islands, desert wastes and ice-glazed mountain tunnels. There are a few amusing James Bond touches (built-in automotive weaponry, and a poison-dripping scene straight out of "You Only Live Twice") and some passing enchantments (a shot of Trixie piloting a pink helicopter over snow-capped Alpine peaks). The picture looks great. In fact, it looks astonishing. But non-stop astonishment is exhausting — sometimes you want it to stop. "Speed Racer" kicks off in overdrive, and it's a wild ride. Before long, though, it runs out of places to go.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "The Fall," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Speed Racer."
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