You no longer need a supply of LSD to have a bad acid trip. Just go to see “Speed Racer,” the new extravaganza from “Matrix” masters Andy and Larry Wachowski. It is, of course, a big-budget live-action re-imagining of the old minimalist Japanese cartoon that became an unaccountable cult favorite on this side of the Pacific. Old-time fans of the ’toon may flock to the movie just as they did to the “Scooby-Doo” pictures. But if they do, they’d better fortify themselves with some anti-seizure medicine; the movie’s like a ramped-up version of the light-show finale to Kubrick’s “2001,” only 135 minutes long (no, that’s no misprint: 2 ¼ hours!)
The brutal sensory overload is coupled with a plot that starves the brain, a recycling of the silliness of the TV show unleavened by any saving hint of postmodern irony. Speed (Emile Hirsch) has grown up with an insane love of cars, courtesy of his auto designer dad Pops (John Goodman) and the older brother he idolized, Rex (Scott Porter), a fantastic driver himself. But Rex supposedly died under a cloud years ago, which only leads Speed to reassert the family’s racing skill by matching his moves on the track, supported not only by Pops but his Mom (Susan Sarandon), little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and Trixie (Christina Ricci), the girl who’s adored him from childhood.
An amazing win brings the boy to the attention of sleazy conglomerate mogul Royalton (Roger Allam), who wants him to join his stable of champion drivers. And when Speed declines, the businessman drops his pretense of friendship to inform the naïve lad that all the races are fixed and that on his own he’s doomed. Happily Speed is approached by Inspector Detector (Benno Furmann), who’s out to clean up the sport, to join an operation led by mysterious driver Racer X (Matthew Fox) to win a torturous race in which they’ll partner with Taejo Togokahn (Rain), who’s trying to free himself (and his father’s company) from a bunch of thugs in league with Royalton. Much of the latter part of the picture is devoted to that race, as well as to the Grand Prix that pits Speed against the mogul’s supposedly unbeatable—and underhanded—driver Cannonball (Ralph Herforth).
All of this, one supposes, is meant to represent a victory of purity and integrity on the part of those who race for the love of it over the greedy, duplicitous corporate types that have degraded the sport. But even the most ardent NASCAR fan may find the contention that Speed’s win over Royalton will “change the world”—unless we’re intended to read this as a simple parable of the triumph of the little guy against the capitalist pigs. But even to think such thoughts is giving the nonsense story far too much credit. It just serves as an excuse for the Wachowskis’ avalanche of blinding effects, which make you feel like you’re trapped inside a thousand flickering neon lights of every hue, all spinning and colliding with the precision of a Rockettes dance number. A little of this goes a long way, and there’s entirely too much of it here. By the end it feels like a weird combination of “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl” and “Sin City” cubed.
In the whirling mass of color and movement the actors are as much props as the cars. Goodman manages to stand out simply by reason of his natural authority, and Korean pop star Rain exhibits a smoldering charisma that’s underused (as opposed to Fox, whose attempt to pose heroically is almost comically forced). But Hirsch, scrubbed up considerably from “Into the Wild,” is pretty bland (and he looks completely out of his element in the fight scenes), Sarandon looks more stricken than maternal, and Ricci, fitted out in Prince Valiant hairdo, resembles no one more than Linda Cardellini in “Scooby-Doo,” and she’s just as dull. Allam chews the scenery as the villainous Royalton, but never very amusingly. Still, he’s a lot more tolerable than little Litt, who’s given plenty of screen time in an apparent attempt to pander to the small fry, always accompanied in his mischievous rounds by a chimpanzee, presumably the family pet, who mugs almost as much as the kid does and is even more irritating.
Ultimately it’s the eye-popping visuals of “Speed Racer” that are the movie’s raison d’etre and, to be honest, its only interesting element. (Certainly the idiotic dialogue isn’t; when excerpts come back as “greatest hits” as various characters’ previous advice occurs to Speed during the culminating race you realize there are no great hits here.) But though they might wow kids who feed on video game graphics, it won’t be long before they’re as dated as the sixties pop-art look of “Modesty Blaise” or “Danger: Diabolik” (or the “Batman” TV show) or the eighties computer one of “Tron.”
In fact, this might be thought of as the new century’s “Tron.” And that’s no compliment.