When “The Matrix” burst onto the scene in 1999, its creators, brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, were hailed as geniuses whose advancements in special-effects technology would forever change the way movies were made. That has proven to be true, but it has also proven to be the undoing of countless imitators. These pretenders often fall into the trap of thinking that spectacular visuals are all they need to make a great film, forgetting that “The Matrix” had a terrific story, too.
The latest filmmakers to succumb to that style-over-substance mentality are the Wachowskis themselves. With their live-action version of the cheesy 1960s cartoon “Speed Racer,” they have created a candy-colored world full of impossibly vivid images and eye-popping visuals. I often found myself agape at the brilliant colors and stunning pictures — during the first 20 minutes, anyway. Then I grew accustomed to the film’s look and started paying attention to its story, dialogue, and characters. That’s when the disappointment settled in.
Why do so many filmmakers forget that 134 minutes of exhilaration is not automatically a good thing? Even the world’s most thrilling roller coaster would grow tiresome if you rode it nonstop for two hours. Action must be supported by story, and the story must lead organically to the action. All of it has to stem from the characters’ motivations. “Speed Racer” is full of people doing things for no discernible reason, and people fighting other people only because, I think, the script labeled one group “good guys” and the other “bad guys.” Other elements exist solely because they existed in the cartoon series — the worst possible excuse.
The title character, played by Emile Hirsch, is a young man of about 17 whose family has racing in its blood. His older brother, Rex Racer (Scott Porter), was a champion driver until his tragic death eight years ago. Speed’s father, Pops (John Goodman), builds the cars while Mom (Susan Sarandon) cheers her boy on. Speed has a chubby little brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), who is his biggest fan, who gets into trouble a lot, and who for some reason has a pet monkey. Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), for some reason lives with the family (or at least she is always at their house, including late at night and early in the morning).
The plot concerns an effort by an evil corporate auto manufacturer named Royalton (Roger Allam) to insinuate himself into the Racer family’s operation by becoming Speed’s chief sponsor. The Racers prefer to remain independent, thank you very much, which enrages Royalton. He is tangled up with a nefarious organization that fixes races and ruins the purity of the sport, and somehow a couple of Japanese companies are involved. There is an awful lot of dialogue related to the politics of racing and the high-finance skulduggery taking place behind the scenes, so much that I eventually gave up on keeping track of it. Considering the movie is aimed at kids, and kids are not as clever as I am, I doubt they’ll be able to make heads or tails of it either.
The gist is that Speed Racer has to compete in some races in order to … um … stop Royalton from … doing whatever it is that he’s doing. Speed is assisted by Racer X (Matthew Fox), a mysterious figure who fights for the side of good. Speed thinks Racer X might be his presumed-dead brother in disguise. Hey, why not?
So we get a lot of whiz-bang racing sequences in which futuristic cars drive at impossible angles, ricocheting off berms and each other and performing a variety of mechanical stunts that would certainly raise eyebrows among NASCAR officials. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein might have a few choice words for the drivers, too, what with their blatant disregard for physics and gravity.
And that is part of the problem. In addition to the outrageously convoluted story, the flat characters, and the passionless dialogue, there’s also the fact that there’s no tension in any of the action. We never fear for anyone’s safety because we know that their cars can drive up walls or execute triple somersaults or whatever else might be needed to ensure the driver’s survival. The action is plentiful, but it never feels like it matters.
Were it not for the fact that the film is well over two hours long, I would think that watching it with the sound off might be the most rewarding way to experience it. It certainly is a wonder to look at. Too bad the Wachowskis neglected to concoct a story to go with it. Who would have thought a movie this dazzling could also be so boring?
C- (2 hrs., 14 min.; )