Nothing in “Speed Racer” is real: not the cars, not the buildings, not the physics, not the stakes, and certainly not the danger. If the Wachowski brothers, creators of “The Matrix” trilogy, were trying to make a movie that looked like a video game, they’ve accomplished their mission more than once, “Speed Racer” reminded me of something I’d seen just hours before while playing my new copy of Mario Kart Wii. But while absurd racing games that laugh in the face of Sir Isaac Newton can be fun to play, they’re certainly not very fun to watch, especially for two hours straight burdened by merciless editing and lousy subplots.
The story, adapted from a variety of “Speed Racer” cartoons through the decades, involves a threat to the Racer family from a greedy tycoon named Royalton (Roger Allam). He wants Speed (Emile Hirsch) to race for his team and he wants his mechanically inclined Pops (John Goodman) to come with him to build cars for his company. The Racer family is proudly free of sponsors and corporate influence, but the Royalton deal offers financial security and all the luxurious purple clothes that come with it. If there is a meaning buried beneath the gaudy colors and outlandish visuals of “Speed Racer,” it is here, where one could conceivably see the Wachowskis speaking about themselves and their art through Speed’s dilemma. The world of racing in “Speed Racer” is one dominated by big businesses more interested in making money and selling products than real entertainment; it’s not hard to see the similarities to the Hollywood moviemaking machine. The theory is given additional weight by an awkward scene between Speed and his mom (Susan Sarandon) where she makes the argument that Speed’s racing is “everything art should be” and by the fact that, as film is for the Wachowskis, the Racers treat racing as a family business.
Still, tantalizing subtexts aside (I haven’t even gotten into the whole Racer X leather fetishist thing), “Speed Racer” still aims to deliver action and thrills that it never really provides, especially in its leaden, flashback-laden first hour. When Speed does hit the track, the driving sequences are so frenetic and the onslaught of the “Wacky Races”-esque gimmicks is so unrelenting that it’s difficult to keep track of who is doing what to whom, and why, and most importantly how, a question the Wachowskis are clearly not interested in addressing (their screenplay tosses around phrases like “interpositive transponder” as if they mean something).
Paying close attention to the film isn’t necessarily rewarded, though it does reveal a few choice plot holes (like when Pops Racer inexplicably claims that they don’t have a car to use in the Grand Prix, even though we saw Speed driving his Mach 5 without complication just one scene earlier). You’re better served trying to appreciate the races as a sort of technological ballet; at one point at the climax of the film, the swirl of candy-colored car bodies actually morph into an abstract collage of shapes and light. But, c’mon who goes to “Speed Racer” looking for that?
When the nefarious Royalton teaches Speed a lesson about the “real” history of racing, the Wachowski brothers make the mistake of cutting to old archival footage of real daredevils performing stunts such as hanging onto the hood of a car as it plows through a pile of flaming logs. That’s an awesomely stupid act but it’s also real; a certifiable lunatic driving through some fiery wood and not some actor in a stationary car husk on a green screen stage being shaken by stagehands. The history of movies is littered with great moments of audacious automotive idiocy all made exciting by the fact that real people did them in real cars. The Mach 5 and the rest of the four-wheeled cast of the Wachowski’s digital garage do spectacular things. But I fail to see the point.