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No vroom for ‘Speed Racer’

May 15, 2008
Going to “Speed Racer” makes you feel like one of those people who watches the Indianapolis 500 to see the crashes.

It’s not as though you haven’t been warned. Beginning with its opening-day reviews, this Warner Bros. action-fantasy from the “Matrix”-making Wachowski brothers has been a $250 million gift to film-reviewing punsters and headline writers trying to outsnide the opposition.

All the crash-and-burn, zero-to-20, flat tire, out of gas, speed kills, red flag metaphors had already been used up before I even set foot in the theater.

Anyone who chooses to see this big-screen, big-budget version of the Japanese anime TV series had better wachowski, was the best I could come up with.

Actually, you could see the problems coming when the trailers caused headaches and motion sickness.

What were they thinking? Have we gone to the cartoon well once too often?

What there is of a story has to do with Speed Racer’s older brother, Rex, who lost his life in a fiery crash that has left the auto-racing-in-their-blood family feeling guilty ever since.

Star Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci as his girlfriend, Trixie, and John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as his parents are good enough actors to play guilty, no matter how threadbare the script. But the concept gets a little fuzzy by the time you get down to Speed’s pudgy little brother, Spritle, and Spritle’s best friend, who happens to be a chimp.

Watching “Speed Racer,” you keep thinking this Japanese-based tale is the one that should have been titled “Lost in Translation.” While fairy tales, epic fantasies and J.K. Rowling’s imagination have managed to negotiate the journey to the big screen, Japanese anime was never intended to be acted out by real live boys … not to mention, girls or grownups.

Actually, “Speed Racer” gets points for recognizing that ever since Steven Spielberg’s class graduated from film school, movie fantasies have been largely the province of young boys’ mechanical daydreams, only with better toys.

And “Speed Racer” does flash back to Speed as one of those distracted youngsters in the classroom, squirming and terminally fidgeting, filling his notebook with doodles of race cars crashing in graphite explosions while making little “vroom, vroom” sounds in his throat.

But the movie’s maturity level seems to have gotten stuck there. The characters are cardboard cutouts, trying to make up in primary-color wardrobes what they lack in personality.

And the car racing sequences, dazzling as they first appear, wind up reminding you of toddlers tossing toy cars against walls.

There’s also a subplot about an unscrupulous tycoon, conveniently named Royalton (Roger Allam), who clues Speed Racer in on the dirty little secret that races have been fixed ever since auto racing was a sport.

Apart from flying right over the heads of the movie’s pre-teen-boy target audience, this injection of moral conscience became more ironic early this week when it was discovered that Warner Bros. studios fudged “Speed Racer’s” opening weekend box-office figures to try to disguise the debacle they had on their hands.

Comic books and young male fantasies have been fueling the summer movie business almost ever since I was a young male reading comic books myself. While I may have had personal quibbles with the way Spielberg, Lucas and company have gone about spinning yarns — they’ve got the new Indiana Jones headed for a theater near you in coming weeks — there was never any question that they were extremely talented guys in the business of telling stories and making myths.

In an even more hopeful vein, “Iron Man” has been blazing across movie skies this summer in one of the best blends yet of special effects and special characters. Smart and funny, “Iron Man” is the rare case where the actors outshine the action sequences, and their humanity is more powerful than their technology.

Movie adventures have always offered escape. But when, like “Speed Racer,” they seem intent on escaping what it means to be human, it’s time to hit the brakes.

• Contact Rick Chatenever at



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