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Saturday, May 10, 2008 

Nowhere Fast? Think Again!

THE MATRIX Trilogy is the Wachowski’s best-known and crowning achievement for a reason. Borrowing liberally from science fiction of all sorts, cyberpunk culture, hacker subculture, video games, comic books, anime, philosophy and religion, The Matrix was a heady, mind-bending amalgam that changed not only the way such stories were told but the way they were shot technically and presented visually. Ever since BOUND, The Wachowki’s have always been cinematic innovators. Well…they’ve done it again.

SPEED RACER is as big and loud as it is bright and shiny. And eye candy? If by some miraculous in vitro abnormality I happened to be born with retinas that were covered in taste buds rather than tiny veins, I’d have gone into sugar shock from the opening sequence alone. The races, which seamlessly blend and blur the lines between live-action and animation but never feel poorly conceived or a case of CGI being overused, will instantly recall an LSD-infused version of the racing game F-ZERO combined with Disney’s TRON and the pod races from THE PHANTOM MENACE, humanly-impossible to navigate twisting neon-lit tracks littered with futuristically-modified Hot Wheels cars being driven by an eclectic bunch of “headhunters, jackals and thugs” better suited for a pro wrestling ring competing for belts and busty valets than trophies and checkered flags. All of this with the most wacked-out “visualization” option you can imagine on your Media Player of choice as the backdrop. The cityscapes are part AKIRA, part Besson’s THE FIFTH ELEMENT and more than anything else, very reminiscent of George Lucas’ STAR WARS prequels. In short, SPEED RACER, with costume design that is almost DICK TRACY-like in its eye-popping-ness and primary colors, is absolutely fuckin’ gorgeous and during its races, you’ll often find yourself with your mouth hanging open, fingertips digging into your arm rest and leaning back in your seat trying to remind yourself to breathe.

Literally chasing his brother’s ghost when the movie opens, “Speed” is the latest driver in the Racer family, which includes his father Pops (John Goodman), his mother Mom (Susan Sarandon), his younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and Spritle’s pet chimp, Chim Chim. So close to the Racers that they are practically family are mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry) and Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci). Throughout this first race a series of flashbacks show how single-minded young Speed was about racing, how he met Trixie and most importantly how his much-admired older brother Rex died doing the very thing Speed loves so much. Impressed by Speed Racer’s uncanny driving skill is the head of Royalton Industries, Royalton (Roger Allam, who you will recognize from V FOR VENDETTA where he played Lewis Prothero “The Voice of London”, a movie rumored to have actually been directed by the Wachowski’s) who sets about wooing Speed to join his team via expensive gifts and a WILLY WONKA-like tour of his factory. When Speed (part neckchiefed Elvis Presley with his oil slick-black pompadour and part James Bond with his tricked-out Mach V car) rejects his offer things turn ugly and Royalton uses his corrupt racing connections in the form of gangster Cruncher Block (John Benfield) to give Speed an eye-opening and difficult lesson in who really controls what happens on the track and the “unassailable might of money.” Desperate to prove Royalton wrong, Speed along with the help of his dark guardian angel “The Harbinger of Boom” Racer X (Matthew Fox) embark on a series of hard-fought, heart-stopping races that will hopefully make Royalton eat his words.

With a voice that effortlessly switches back and forth from booming and authoritative to calm and firm, John Goodman has been America’s dad since he was “Dan Conner” and made being married to obnoxious and overweight loudmouth Roseanne Barr, even fictitiously, look like a do-able task. Playing “Pops” isn’t a tremendous stretch. Susan Sarandon, for her part, also embodies all the qualities of your typical housewife as “Mom” and she puts it all behind the warm and caring face of everyone’s mother or the face everyone’s mother should have; the face that seems to look deeper than just the surface and conveys that she knows you inside out without her uttering a single word of motherly reassurance. Round-faced and saucer-eyed Christina Ricci’s face is practically an anime caricature as is; she appears right at home here saying things like “Cool beans” and “Hubba hubba,” openly doting on her beau. LOST’s Matthew Fox as Racer X was very Aaron Eckhart-ish – handsome and mysterious – behind his black leather, identity-shielding digs. Which brings us lastly to Emile Hirsch (THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, ALPHA DOG) who as the lead and “Speed” Racer isn’t really required to do a ton of heavy-lifting acting-wise, still seems to have learned everything he knows about his craft from watching lots of early Leonardo DiCaprio.

The running time is long, the language was, at times, surprisingly coarse and the story’s a bit heavy for children to handle (talk of corporate sponsorship, the stock market, fixers and villains straight out of the British underworld of a Guy Ritchie movie will likely go over most youngsters’ heads) but the Wachowski’s have done their job in providing the summer its first fun and campy thrill-ride and a visually entertaining spectacle, to boot.

Just like they always have.