The Wachowski brothers have a knack for wasting money. Under the protection of (frankly terrifying) producer-cum-human sledgehammer Joel Silver, they have, over the past ten years, taken Warner Brothers (their studio) to the cleaners for a sum I scarcely dare to think about. What have Warner Brothers been gifted with in return? Two crappy Matrix sequels and Speed Racer, the movie equivalent of a $200,000,000 bag of Skittles. I call these movies a waste of money. Evidently the board at Time Warner sees things differently. Why is that? Is it because movies don’t matter? Or is because we (the audience) are out of touch with what movies are today?
Speed Racer is based on a Japanese cartoon from the 1960s. Even if you didn’t know Speed Racer was based on a Japanese cartoon from the 1960s, you would know it instinctively: the exclamatory names (!!!); the eye-gouging colours; the general air of hysterical campiness. Our story is about a boy named Speed Racer, son of Mom and Pops Racer, brother of the deceased Rex Racer, and God-knows-what to Chim Chim, the family’s pet chimpanzee. Speed Racer lives for one thing. His arch-nemesis Royalton lives to make money (which is bad, and the standard mixed-message of every $200,000,000 movie). Everything gets settled at the race-track.
On a personal note, I take delight in any movie with a monkey in it. From Any Which Way But Loose through Dunston Checks In; movies + monkeys = a sure sign that what you’re watching ain’t going to win an Oscar any time soon.
Speed Racer is the kind of movie that can’t lose from sticking a monkey in it. It’s a bright shiny piece of crap to begin with, so (I imagine the Wachowski brothers might have said) why not stick a chimp in it too? Lord knows no-one else is going to distinguish themselves in the acting stakes. Emile Hirsch (taking his expression off a shampoo bottle and his line readings from a bar of soap) looks forgettable. Christina Ricci acts like the kind of girl a forgettable man might date. John Goodman… Oh lord. It’s all too sad. However, there’s a little boy who plays Speed’s younger brother, and, although I’m sure he’ll be a liquor-store robber in ten years, at least he seems to be enjoying himself. The chimp has a goddamn whale of a time.
Speed Racer’s real (make that: only) achievement is in the technical stakes. If Speed Racer were a ten minute short, it might almost be praise worthy for its visuals… a sky like liquid sapphire, L.A. pretty much as it is: a mirage, every race-car like chrome wind. You need a lot of purple prose to approximate what the Wachowski’s have done with pixels and an ungodly amount of money. I know, in the end, the movie tires. But for those first ten minutes, while your eyeballs are still feeling the rush, when you’re still giddy from all the colours… it’s a little like being a pre-teen again. BAM! Think of a comic book’s palette, with a comic book’s punchy, inarticulate sensibility. That’s what Speed Racer is. If you liked Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (that makes two of us, at least) you might forgive it for not being any good.
Movies today don’t need to be good, they just need to be good at selling stuff. Off the back of Speed Racer, Time Warner hopes to sell video games, action figures, and Lord knows what else. Probably they won’t, this time around. They thought they had the next Spy Kids (I imagine), but they forgot the secret of Spy Kids success (i.e. it cost what they paid the chimp for Speed Racer). Guys like the Wachowski brothers were born to make modern Hollywood movies because all their ideas sound like great merchandizing (hell, they sold philosophy books to kids off the back of The Matrix). So let ’em waste money. They’re not alone as profligates. Roll on Lego Man: The Movie.