Saturday, May 10, 2008

Going Mach 5 With SPEED RACER: Why Speed Is a Can't-Miss Classic


- Well, wow. I mean, wow. Listen up people and listen good - the critics are on crack, because SPEED RACER may just be the best film yet of 2008, and one of the best family films in YEARS. I haven't come out of a movie feeling this joyous and euphoric in ages. Speed Racer deserves to kill at the box office, and if by some twist of fate it doesn't, well, it will become a home-video classic without a doubt. I just can't fathom how stuffy, joyless, and out of touch one must be in order to watch this movie and NOT get caught up in the sheer energy and good vibes. But trust me on this one, fellow film fans, there's no two ways about it: there's two words to describe Speed Racer and they are these: kick-ass.

Okay, let's start with the obvious - the visuals. Let's just say the bar has officially been elevated. You know, for years now I've read about how James Cameron is going to revolutionize cinema with his vaporware movie known as Avatar. I've heard about how Avatar is supposedly going to meld CGI and live-action to bring the anime aesthetic to mainstream film in an unpreceented, groundbreaking manner. Well, Mr. Cameron, I sincerely hope that Avatar will be as good as promised, but, well, it looks like the Wachowskis may have beaten you to the punch. Speed Racer looks like no movie before it - its world POPS off the screen with a vibracy, a kineticism, a visual splendor that I've never seen before. Even after seeing numerous trailers and commercial spots, I still don't think I was fully prepared for the eye-melting sights that Speed Racer brought to the table. And this isn't just about complex CGI creations or soulless, empty digital f/x. On the contrary, Speed Racer exudes soul and bleeds style. Watching it was like seeing Akira, or Batman: The Animated Series, or Sin City, or The Nightmare Before Christmas for the first time. It's a game-changer, but not solely because of the technology at play. No, I'm talking about in a more purely artistic sense. This is a WORLD the likes of which we've never seen, a world which pays homage to the past, sure, but this is the next evolution of the core concept, a reimagining that is itself a whole new paradigm.

The racing scenes in Speed Racer are like something out of a digital dream. Matrix-like physics wrapped around Japanese anime aesthetics coated with hi-rez, high-contrast videogame visual gloss. Even more impressive, the action moves at a lightining-fast pace, yet is still able to processed, absorbed, and followed. The cuts make sense from a narrative perspective, and every action scene succeeds in telling its own story.

Beyond even the racing, there are action scenes here that are an absolute blast. Imagine the 60's Batman TV show mixed with Dragonball Z and you might have an idea of what to expect. Visually, it's absolutely amazing how the nuances and conventions of anime have been adapted. From motion blur and speed lines to big eyes, raised eyebrows, dialogue style, and character mannerisms, this IS a cartoon come to life in the best and coolest way imaginable. I cannot say enough about the visual aesthetic on display here - from shimmering metropolitan cityscapes to dayglo cartoon suburbia to neon-Playstation racetracks, this movie redefines the term "eye candy." And the brilliant and innovative direction by the Wachowskis maximizes the wow-factor tenfold, with each shot seemingly captured for maximum fun. While the action and racing is visceral and kinetic, even the more sedate scenes are still bursting with imagination and color.

So the visuals are awesome, revolutionary even. Most critics seem to at least agree on that. But then I hear words like empty and hollow thrown out as enthusiasm is tempered. And yet, here I am, amazed at how much genuine heart and soul was in this movie. For all of its new-school visuals, I loved the fact that deep down this was an old-school family flick, through and through. If you go in cynical and jaded and looking for something inappropriately adult and ironic and self-aware, then go watch Shrek or something. SPEED RACER to me was so fun precisely because it revelled in its own innocence. It knew it was a living breathing cartoon and had as much fun with that concept as possible. But there IS heart here. Because woven through the film is a surprisingly effective story about family and growing up. It's a coming-of-age story for Speed. And it works - moreso, in fact, than most family films ever do.

In large part, credit can be given to the outstanding cast. Emile Hirsch is great as Speed. He sets the tone for the rest of the cast, who do an amazing job as a whole in terms of playing things straight - totally throwing themselves into this surreal world of Speed Racer. No winks and nods at the audience here - Hirsch and co. become real-life cartoon characters, and they really sell it. Even the look of the characters feels spot-on. I mean take a look at Christina Ricci as Speed's loyal girlfriend Trixi - has there ever been a more convincing portrayal of the anime character aesthetic in three-dimensions? In the end, Speed Racer truly makes you love its heroes and hate its villains, so to that end you know its doing something right.

But I have to take a second make special mention of John Goodman. Every once in a while, Goodman lands a role that reminds me why he's one of the underappreciated greats, and yeah, I'm as surprised as anyone - THIS is one of those roles. Goodman, sporting a big mustache and Super Mario wardrobe as POPS RACER, is so great here. He really is the heart and soul of the movie. How can anyone watch the great father-son scenes between Pops and Speed and then say this movie has no heart? And oh boy, when Pops is given the chance to whoop some ass, well, Goodman brings so much lovability to the character that his big action scenes are of the rare kind that make you want to stand up and cheer. Suffice it to say, I absolutely loved John Goodman in this movie.

How about Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X? Talk about badass, Fox kicks ass in this role. With a deep, superhero-style voice and cool-as-hell costume straight from the cartoon, all I know is that any kid who sees this film is going to be running out to get the RACER X action figure, pronto. Fox has some great scenes with Hirsch, and I actually thought that the mystery surrounding X's identity was handled well by the film - it both is and isn't what you thought.

Susan Sarandon is also great as Speed's Mom, but almost everyone is outshined by a little kid and a monkey. Speed's little bro, Spritle, is a riot, and so is his mischievous pet monkey Chim Chim. Again, this is one of the aspects of the movie that I thought was handled with the perfect amount of humor and charm. If you go in cynical, you might not be so amused. But I was won over by the little wiseguy and his monkey. I mean, who doesn't love a monkey sidekick?

And for the record, this movie does have both monkeys and ninjas. And monkeys fighting ninjas. Awesome.

Oh, and I have to mention the great Roger Allam as corporate tycoon Royalton. Allam does a great job of hamming it up - reeking of vile villainy, sneering out every word with wicked aplomb. And hey, SHAFT is in the movie too! Richard Roundtree himself has a great part as a retired racer-turned-announcer who plays a key role in the movie's larger mythology.

I think it's admirable that the movie carries the message of the importance of staying true to family and friends, of carving one's own path rather than conforming to a world that is increasingly corporate and driven by the almighty dollar. If the movie has any fault though, it's that the plot actually gets too confusing and convoluted at times, especially around the middle of the film. There's all kinds of stuff going on involving backroom corporate deals, warring factions of racers, and Speed's own family history that soon becomes pretty tough to follow. Ultimately though, I think the busyness of the plot becomes part of its fun - there's so many random characters that pop up and converging plotlines coming into play that at some point you just lose yourself in the madness, forget about the details, and get caught up in the larger storyarc of Speed's hero's journey. In the end, forgetting some of the overly complex story details, it's a fairly simple tale of family, destiny, and the love of the game.

But wow, in the end, as the credits rolled and a super-cool remix of the original SPEED RACER themesong blared, I found myself floored by just how great a movie this was. Two hours of pure action, fun, and tangible joy, with characters you couldn't help but love and visuals that, not long ago, were merely the stuff of overactive childhood imaginations. I know, I wasn't quite expecting this either, but there can be no doubt: Speed Racer rocks, and it rocks hard.

My Grade: A

1 comment:

  1. Is it 3-D? Nope. Avatar will wipe the floor with Speed Racer.