Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Speed Racer


15 minutes into "Speed Racer" I began to wonder what was wrong with the critics who have written mainly negative reviews and indeed the audiences in general who have not made "Speed Racer" into a huge summer movie hit.
An hour into "Speed Racer", I could exactly why it has not been the huge success it should really be.
"Speed Racer" looks amazing. At least for the first half hour of the film. It is co colourful, that it is like lying down on the ground in Times Square and looking at all that rainbow neon. What makes it all go wrong is a messy plot and a film who tells it's audience that corporate greed is wrong while there is blatant product placement ads for name brands like Cheerios and Motorola in many scenes.
The colours of the world of "Speed Racer" are amazing. This is colour that is the core of how today's popular culture is marketed, a Jetsons futuristic world, a Tim Burton suburb in space. The clothes, buildings, billboards and of course the cars: everything in "Speed Racer" is loud and bright and beautiful. Speed's car is the only thing that is not a bright neon colour, plain white with a simple red M, similar to the McDonald's golden M.
The beginning of the film is similar to Will Ferrell's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" as the young Speed Racer sits at a school desk and dreams of fast cars, his own need for speed. The actor playing Speed Racer, Nicholas Elia, is so full of energy and his love of fast cars, his father's motorcar business and most of all, his race driver big brother Rex Speed all help to start the film brilliantly. Sadly, as the grown up Speed Racer, Emile Hirsch never really continues that passion for car racing that his character should have. He says the lines but I found I never really believed him. This is very disappointing as Emile Hirsch is a great young actor who was powerful in Sean Penn's "Into The Wild", a film where he stole every scene. It is interesting that both Zac Efron and Shia La Beouf were originally considered for the lead role of Speed Racer. There was no way that La Beouf was going to not act in this years "Indiana Jones" but Zac Efron may have been a more suitable choice for this bright, glossy movie as he played his part well in "Hairspray", a similar bright and breezy movie, in 2007.
The first race scene in the film mixes a race that Speed is competing in and one that his brother and hero, Rex had done years previously. Both of their cars race almost as one and it is a marvel to watch visually. As each of the main supporting characters watch the race, their own individual memories about either Rex or Speed intertwine in the story. While this is actually well done but it would be easy for younger viewers to get confused so early in the story.
Later, when a seemingly well meaning business man Royalton, played by Roger Allam, arrives, his introduction to the story and his offer to get Speed to race for his company seems to go on forever. This is a film built on speed and therefore when the story slows to relate a plot narration the film as a whole gets dull quickly.
There is a huge array of supporting characters. John Goodman plays Pops and Susan Sarandon is Mom, they are typically Hollywood fatherly and motherly where required. The rest of Speed's family consist of his younger brother Spritle who is played by Paulie Litt. It is not always the nicest thing to criticise a child actor but without doubt, Spritle is by far the most annoying character in the film, Paulie Litt plays the part of Spritle as if he has only watched episodes of "The Little Rascals", teamed with a chimpanzee called Chim Chim who is always dressed in children's clothes, they are, sadly, the film's Jar Jar Binks. Speed's kinda-girlfriend Trixie played by Christina Ricci (looking fab), who has loved him from early school days, appears to live with the family as does, mechanic Sparky played by Kick Gurry who looks and sounds like the singer, Darren Hayes.
Scott Porter playing Speed's older brother Rex, who also stars in the current remake of "Prom Night", is only in the film at the beginning, is an actor born to star in a blockbuster. He has classic good looks and Matthew Fox who, as the mysterious Racer X just may be Rex, is like a poor replacement. After "Vantage Point" this is the second film this year in which Matthew Fox is just ok in. Keeanu Reeves was supposed to play Racer X but I feel would have not added anything extra to the role.
"Speed Racer" is over 2 hours long but could easily have been half an hour shorter. Some scenes drag on forever and it is similar to the Pixar animated film "Cars" in that some car races could also have been dropped. Incidentally John Goodman had a cameo as the voice of Monster Truck in "Cars".
It is ironic that it is in the actual car races that "Speed Racer" is the least exciting. no matter how thrilling the film makers think they look we know nothing will really happen to Speed Racer, all will be well. A lot of money from the rumoured $120 million budget must have been spent on these scenes but there is no tension or real excitement in any of them. Because there are several races in the film there are various other competitor drivers. Most of them are either cardboard villain types or in the case of fellow car racer Taejo Toyokhan, as played by Rain, a pop star most famous in Asia, this film is used to create a career for him in Hollywood. Rain's first scene, where is being beaten and threatened to be fed to Piranhas by a Reggie Kray type East end villain, is very out of place in what is essentially a film for young children.
"Speed Racer" sadly is a film where it can be said that, "Video Games Killed the Movie Star". The Playstation type graphics constantly overshadow the whole film, the actors no matter how good they can be, (Hirsch, Sarandon) have no choice but to do their scenes and look pretty. Speed, himself should be at the centre of the story but often seems to be a supporting actor. As an example, in the scene where Royalton visits the Racer family and put the main part of the plot in place, Mom and Pops are centre camera while Speed stands in the background.
The end of the film leaves the story wide open for a sequel but as more than one reviewer has said where can Speed go from here? "Speed Racer" doesn't deserve to be the flop it will be but the USA summer box office is more competitive every year. If a movie fails after it's first weekend, it never has the chance to regain it's losses as each Friday a new film comes out that pushes the others onto fewer and smaller multiplex screens. When I went to see it today, Wednesday, there were only 10 other people in the cinema. To date, "Speed Racer" has made $30 million in the USA. "Iron Man", the film every new movie this summer, will now have to compete against, has made $226 million.
The "Speed Racer" website is here.