They don't call 'em moving pictures for nothing. From 1903's The Great Train Robbery to 1977's Star Wars and beyond, the movies have been enraptured with speed. And a lot of time and money has gone into the depiction of speed. But rarely has a movie devoted itself entirely to the depiction of speed...until now. Speed Racer, the new movie version of the Japanese-import cartoon that kept many of us from getting our homework done back in the late '60s and early '70s, lives up to its title more or less every second it's on the screen. And the races themselves - think Roller Derby, only with cars, the whole world covered in Hot Wheels tracks - seem determined to break new ground, if not the sound barrier. You may want to bring a crash helmet.
And a translator, because this particular piece of intellectual property has been tossed back and forth between Japan and the United States so many times you can no longer tell which country it belongs to. The original was Japanese, but animator Tatsuo Yoshida was heavily influenced by mid-century Anglo-American cool - James Bond, Elvis. Then the show got adapted for American television, its dubbing into English providing many youngsters with their first exposure to that weird offness that occurs when something's been lost in translation. I always thought the cartoon was strange (nobody told me it was Japanese), but in a good way. And apparently the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, fabricators of The Matrix and its reboots, thought so too.
They've tried to preserve that strangeness in their live-action/animation film, which is cartoonish in both the best and worst senses of the word. Visually, the movie is a veritable feast of eye candy, the Day-Glo whoosh lines taking on a warp-speed life of their own, like Op Art. Narratively, the thing is all but weightless, a 22-minute episode stretched past the two-hour mark, leaving the characters thinner than ever. Speed, you may recall, is the middle child in a family utterly devoted to automotive mechanics; Dad's under the hood, Speed's behind the wheel, and Mom looks on lovingly, in that '50s TV kind of way. And to say that the actors - John Goodman, Emile Hirsch and Susan Sarandon, respectively - have been given little to do is to engage in understatement. They have almost nothing to do.
And yet they keep doing it, against a vast backdrop. The Wachowskis, who also wrote the script, have come up with a scenario that allows them to stick it to the man while spending $120 million of the man's money. Yes, it's an anti-corporate diatribe disguised as a kid flick. When it opens, Speed, still reeling from the death of his older brother, Rex (Scott Porter), is being recruited by the head of Royalton Industries (Roger Allam), who makes Donald Trump look like César Chávez. If he signs, he'll be an instant millionaire, but it turns out that grand-prix-style racing is as fixed as championship-style wrestling. The Racer family's mom-and-pop shop doesn't have a chance against these guys...unless Speed can somehow win the big race that will qualify him for that other big race, and somehow win that one too.
I'll leave it to you to guess whether he can or not. Speed Racer does have one surprise in store for you, though, having to do with the identity of Racer X, a masked man who appears and disappears à la the Lone Ranger. Otherwise, the movie's disappointingly predictable. Even the special effects, for all the cutting-edge techniques they use, seem strung together from used movie parts. Basically, Ben Hur did it all 50 years ago, and did it better, if only because it kept at least one wheel on solid ground at all times. Speed Racer wants to leap the space-time continuum, move so fast it appears to be standing still. The thing is, that feels a lot like standing still. By the halfway point, I was looking around for the checkered flag.