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Speeding Towards Failure

'Speed Racer' goes off the rails.

12:00 AM, May 16, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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HOT ON THE HEELS of the first blockbuster of the Summer season (Iron Man) we have its first bomb: Speed Racer, the $120 million Wachowski Brothers production, grossed only $18.5 million in its first weekend. Reviewers were no kinder than the audience: It rates only 36 percent "fresh" on the critic-aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes.

In every way, Speed Racer is a failure: Critically, commercially, and artistically, it's a giant Day Glo-colored mess. It assaults the senses without relent, subjecting its audience to burning-bright neons on top of computer-generated backgrounds while the actors ham it up. The plot is both bombastic and befuddling--a fiery business mogul by the name of Royalton organizes a worldwide conspiracy to fix stock car races in the hope of manipulating stock prices--but plenty of bad movies with silly plots make money. So how did the Wachowskis manage to fail so spectacularly?

Stylistically, the film had great potential and was certainly a bold experimental project. The Wachowskis spent nine figures creating a flesh-and-blood cartoon. I don't mean a live-action adaptation of a cartoon, something akin to the abominable Scooby Doo franchise. No, the Wachowskis, with the aid of CGI and limited only by their own imagination, crafted a world that looks like a cartoon but is inhabited by real people. It is, to say the least, an interesting aesthetic.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Speed Racer looks unlike anything you've seen before, but that's not necessarily a good thing: The Elephant Man looked like nothing the world had ever seen before, too. It's cartoonish in every sense of the word, from the artificial green screen backdrops to the delightfully over-the-top performances of Christina Ricci (Speed's girlfriend, Trixie) and Roger Allam (the vile billionaire Royalton). Matthew Fox also impresses as a steel-jawed mystery man, Racer X. But Emile Hirsch, who plays the title character, has the personality of a cardboard cutout; his lifeless portrayal will leave audiences clamoring for the anime original.

The Wachowskis also seem unsure how to portray people in motion. In one clever nod to the source material, for example, they insert "motion lines" (the straight lines added to static images meant to simulate movement) in some action scenes but refrain in others. It's as if they were unwilling to commit fully to the idea of Speed Racer as a real-life cartoon.

Aesthetics aside, Speed Racer still had a shot at redemption. Its heart rests in its racing sequences, and there was reason to hope for great things from the Wachowskis: The freeway sequence in The Matrix Reloaded is the single greatest car chase committed to film in the last 20 years. Indeed, the Matrix films emphasized fight scenes as ballet: When bodies are in motion, especially when engaged in violence, there is a certain beauty to their movement. A well-choreographed fight scene is less a physical struggle than an intricate dance representing a physical struggle. The Wachowskis brought that principle to the Matrix Reloaded freeway sequence and in the interplay between automobiles, including smashups.

There's a similarly balletic quality in Speed Racer--cars flip, twist, turn, and slide all around the tracks, causing controlled chaos as they careen into each other and off cliffs--but the film is edited in such a hectic manner it's difficult to keep track of the action. In a further complication, the Wachowskis insist on cutting away from the action as often as possible to remind us that the other characters are watching the same action we see. It's reminiscent of the ultimate showdown in Transformers, where Michael Bay's hyper-stylized editing ruined what could have been a great scene by rendering the battling titans indiscernible to the naked eye.

All these problems shouldn't have stopped Speed Racer from opening better than it did. Massive opening weekends are creations of the hype machine: Hostile reviews do little to staunch the audience flow, and word-of-mouth doesn't exist because no one has yet seen the film. What, then, does this marketing campaign's failure suggest?

First, producers should be wary of pitching family-friendly PG movies on the backs of two brothers best known for an R-rated trilogy (the Matrix movies), an R-rated anarchist tract (V for Vendetta), and R-rated soft-core lesbian porn (Bound). Second, studio heads shouldn't overestimate the built-in audience for second tier franchises such as Speed Racer. Iron Man and its $100-million opening notwithstanding, it's important to tell audiences what they're getting into. In previews and commercials for Iron Man you didn't get the hero's back story but you did see Iron Man blowing up a tank. In ads for Speed Racer you saw colors.