Thursday, 8 May 2008

Speed Racer

Screen Fever Score: 7/10
Go Speed Racer go! Although stretched out too long and boasting a visual style that takes a little getting used to, Speed Racer is a big shiny blast of a blockbuster.

Full Review:
First a confession. I’m one of the few people in the world who is quite fond of the Matrix sequels. Yes, they are flawed, yes, they’re too long and oh yes, the rave scene in Reloaded is a shameful and embarrassing few minutes of film. But for all their faults, they also contain some of the most thrilling action scenes put on film since, well, The Matrix first burned up our multiplexes. So I always get excited at the prospect of seeing whatever The Wachowski Brothers do next. When I saw the brain-frazzlingly bright zips and spins of the Speed Racer trailer, my appetite was well and truly whetted. Could they transplant the kinetic blast of adrenaline that characterized The Matrix films’ best moments into the cartoon world of 60’s kids animation Speed Racer? Would it be as good? Is there life after Neo for The Wachowskis?

Having sated my appetite with a pristine IMAX-vision screening of Speed Racer, I can answer my questions thusly: yes, not quite, and definitely. When Speed Racer puts pedal to metal it’s a thrilling and spectacular joyride.

The story focuses on the eponymous driver (Emile Hirsch) and how his racing bids for glory pit him against the multi-billion dollar might of Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), head of Royalton Industries and a bit of a cad. Fortunately Speed has a loving family on his side, as well as the assistance of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox). Structured around three major race sequences, and set in an entirely digital, fluorescent-themed environment, the film is a visual head-rush, and in the first instance it’s a little hard to tell what on earth is going on. Stick with it though, and soon your brain catches up with your eyes. By the time Speed makes it to the central, life-threatening cross-country rally, known as The Crucible, you’ll be feasting on the Wachowski’s gleefully gravity-defying camerawork, as cartoon-like cars fly from both ends of the screen and impossible zooms catch the determination in the eyes of the drivers.

It’s all two-dimensional stuff (quite literally), and the performances of the talented cast are suitably primary-coloured. Particular mention should go to Christina Ricci as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie and Paullie Litt as Spritle, his younger brother; Ricci looks like a real-life cartoon character as it is, and her spirited performance sums up the film’s innocent and simple tone perfectly. Litt brings great comedy timing to what could have been a really grating character; it’s quite refreshing for the comic relief to be genuinely funny in a big-budget blockbuster.

Where Speed Racer suffers is in the Wachowski’s lack of subtlety in dovetailing action and plot development, making the film a rather bumpy ride, narratively speaking, and pushing the running time needlessly over two hours. The opening race when commentators conveniently spell out Speed’s troubled backstory is clunky, to say the least, and the final third also packs in far too many emotional family scenes - I could definitely have lived without Susan Sarandon’s “your racing is, like, art” speech.

But primarily this is a film about the rush of the moment, and it has loads of visual highlights. The Wachowski’s bring out different colour themes for each race, and throw in neat little touches all the time; look out for the switch to heat-sensitive vision during Racer X’s gangster ambush. Speed Racer won’t change the filmic landscape in the way that The Matrix did, but it will brighten it up for a few hours, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Directors/Writers: Larry and Andy Wachowski
Stars: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon
Cert: PG
UK release: 9 May

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