Friday, May 16, 2008

Go, Speed, Go!

Bad Scott! Bad Scott! I went to Speed Racer not once, but twice last weekend. I had fully intended on posting a review Sunday, but I got sick for the first half of the week and then busy with work and school for the second half. Yeah, I know, excuses are like a**holes, they crash parties and make people uncomfortable, or something like that.

"You saw it twice?" I hear you say in my mind, "There's no way a live-action remake of an old Japanese cartoon could be that good."

"Hah!" I say, "Shows what you know! How'd you get in here anyway? My head's only got room for one, thankyewverymuch. There's the door."

I went to opening night with a couple of friends and enjoyed the movie thoroughly. Knowing full well that Stacy was not interested in the movie, I decided to take the girls to it the next day while she was out doing scrapbook stuff. They loved it. Well, mostly. Scarlett fell asleep halfway through. That should be more of a testament to how tired she was since she refused to nap and not to how ho-hum the movie is.

Because ho-hum it ain't. This isn't the Wachowski bros first rodeo, and it shows. The writing/directing team of brothers Andy and Larry showed considerable polish in their treatment of the venerable Speed Racer.

Before I get into the movie proper, I should give you my background on Speed Racer. Scratch that, before I get into my background, I should give you some background on Speed Racer. Speed was one of the early anime (nee Japanamation) imports to hit American television. The original series is circa 1967, if that tells you anything.

The animation is sub-par, especially by today's standards. Shortcuts abound, such as static scenes with minor animation, speed line backgrounds, reused footage, etc. The dubbing is laughable. You can tell the voice actors are trying their best to fit all the words into the small amount of time the characters are actually moving their mouths while other moments are given over wholly to reaction grunts. Oooh! Ahhh! Uhhhh? That kind of thing.

What Speed Racer had going for it was excitement. The excitement of a race car called Mach 5 (kick@$$ name!) that could jump, cut through trees, go underwater, whatever they wanted it to do. The excitement of a death race as Speed went head to head with ruthless criminals and spies, both on the track and off. The intrigue of Racer X, who you knew was Speed's presumed-dead brother, but was still a mystery to Speed and family. Plus, there's a chimp. All things that appealed to young Scott.

So I had a bit of nostalgia for Speed Racer. Not an immense amount, the bad animation and dubbing still stand out in my mind.

Speed Racer The Movie blew me away. I could tell by the previews that it was going to be psychedelic, as it should be. The old series had that drug-induced fever dream quality to it, so it was appropriate. They delivered much more than that, though. The Wachowski's get credit for ignoring physics whenever they became inconvenient to giving us a bit of eye candy. I respect that if you're trying to tell a story about a car that can jump and flip 20-30 feet in the air, repeatedly bash other cars with no signs of damage, contain a plethora of secret gadgets (Spritle, would you say I have a plethora of gadgets? Si, si, Speed, a plethora! Spritle, do you know what a plethora is? Hah! I crack myself up.) and still race around a track that would give any NASCAR driver nightmares for weeks, then you don't need to be tied down by such mundane details as gravity, cause and effect, material strength, and all that crap.

The cast has some winners in it. Speed is played by Emile Hirsch, who has a kind of recognizable quality. That's not because I've seen him in anything, he just reminds me of other actors. He did a passable job. Sadly enough, the role of Speed is the most forgiving of any of them. Speed is the Hero, any young man with the right look that can deliver that Hero persona would probably have worked in the role. Hirsch does well in his emotional personal conflicts, which is certainly more maturity than we ever got from the original series.

Christina Ricci seemed to me an odd choice for Speed's girl, Trixie. Don't get me wrong, she did a great job, she just seemed an odd fit. Trixie was always a bit of a dim damsel in distress in the original series. Ricci's Trixie was a bit more competent and helpful, which is just fine.

Matthew "Lost" Fox was fun to watch as Racer X. He's definitely got the brooding mysterious hero look down pat. He showed quite a bit of range, more than I expected from the character. I don't know whether to attribute that to the bros Wachowski or Fox, but kudos anyway. His counterpart, Scott "Friday Night Lights" Porter as pre-Racer-X Rex is good, but he has little screen time.

Now for the brilliant casting. John Goodman as Pops? Genius! Goodman has the build, demeanor, and facial expressions that make him perfect for the role. Perhaps the greatest moment, strike that, the greatest moment with Pops was watching him wipe the floor with a ninja using his old wrestling moves. A ninja. I couldn't stop laughing.

Trixie: Was that a ninja?
Pops: More like a nonja. Terrible what passes for a ninja these days.

Great line or greatest line ever?

Susan Sarandon
as Mom. At first glance, she seems to be a bit of an over-qualified actress for the role. However, Sarandon brings a spirit and heart to the maternal character that solidifies the sub-text of family unity that would be sorely lacking without her presence. That was a good bit of casting.

Paulie Litt as Spritle. Speed's younger brother would always tag along in the adventures by hiding in the trunk of the Mach 5 with his trusty companion, Chim Chim, in the old series. That hasn't changed at all. The extra scenes given to Spritle and the family chimp were well worth the effort. While obviously thrown in to keep the kiddies amused, there's no discounting the power of a chimp in entertaining folks of all ages. Litt channels his inner New-Yorker as the protective hero-worshipper to his older brother Speed, while retaining independence as a troublemaker and Saturday morning martial artist. The moment he and Chim Chim squared off over the sofa as their favorite cartoon Kung Fu characters, I was sold.

Roger Allam as the villainous Royalton was another master stroke. I don't know Allam from anything, not from lack of acting. I just don't watch in his circles, I guess. He comes across so smarmily at the beginning that it's impossible to not recognize him as a dastardly character with a shriveled, black heart. Allam sold it and I loved the character because I was supposed to hate him. Is that weird?

I'm going to cut the name dropping there. That's not the whole principle cast, but it's enough. The others did well enough. I just really enjoyed the performances of these guys a bit more.

We're already moving into epistle territory, so I'll touch on the story and other elements then wrap this up. Speed is a small-time racer with an eye on the Grand Prix, like any aspiring driver. Obviously talented, he is scoped out by the corrupt Royalton to join the "winning team". After finding out the truth, that the every high-level race is rigged by the corporate big-wigs behind the scenes, Speed (with a little convincing) decides to Do The Right Thing (tm) and fight the Powers That Be (also tm). One of the defining factors of Speeds life up to this moment was the loss of his older brother Rex to the cutthroat world of rally racing. Little does he know that his brother faked his death and now races from the shadows as the Harbinger of Boom, Racer X. With the help of this mysterious stranger, his family, and his girl Trixie, Speed races to right the wrongs of the big business fat cats and teach them rotten nogoodniks a lesson.

I already touched on the action a bit, what with the leaping race cars and other gadgets. The races are truly exciting. My favorite race by far was the rally race near the middle of the movie. Racing against four extremely hostile teams (as well as the rest of the racers,) Speed, Racer X, and their sponsoring team's racer, Taejo (Rain), ride through three climate changes and countless dangers. We get to see poison sprayers, sledgehammers, (remote controlled!) tire knives, giant steel spiked balls on the end of chains, and a, I kid you not, catapult loaded with a beehive. Classic!

There was also a particularly good fight scene during this race, though it doesn't come close to Pops Vs. Nonja. As the originators of "bullet time" I feel that the Wachowski's were under some pressure to deliver another cool fight-scene dynamic. They did. This time, they used the pretense of snowfall to create speed lines of sorts behind particularly fast and vicious punches and kicks. It sounds kinda cheesy, but the combination of the effect with the judicious use of slow and fast filming made for some great eye candy.

I also enjoyed, as did my girls, the mechanism the Wachowski bros. dreamed up for soon-to-die racers to net them that PG rating. Right before a car would suffer a mortal crash, sensors would trigger a safety mechanism that would cocoon the racer in a sphere of elastic bubbles. As the car exploded in a fiery, er, fireball, the racer would bounce out in a cute CGI sphere of bubbles, presumably picked up later safe and sound.

I knew this blockbuster season was going to be good. Prince Caspian opens today and (cue heavenly choir) Indiana Jones opens next week. There is a movie opening every week from now until the end of summer that I will probably try to see. However, I was not expecting to enjoy the first two so thoroughly. First, we were given Iron Man, which was undeniably awesome. Next, Speed Racer, which blew me away. I really wasn't expecting it to be that good. Plus, there's a chimp!

I give Speed Racer forty-two out of forty-five Chim Chim Cookies on a scale I just made up that doesn't mean anything.

To forestall any complaints about my reviews (like anyone that reads this cares enough to complain,) I know that my reviews are not completely objective and don't really take a critical look at the plot, writing, etc. Here's what I have to say to that. Phbtbtbtbtbtbt! Git yer own blog! I know what I like and I tell you why I liked it or didn't. You want a well-thought review that deeply examines the finer points of the cinematic experience, then go look up one of the psuedo-intellectual "critics" that foist that crap on the public. They're movies, the blockbusters in particular bear only a passing resemblance to art. If I wanted to pay $20.00 to see art, I'd take the metro into DC and pay to get into a high-end museum. Enjoy the blockbusters for the visceral thrills and spills, or you're going to waste your twenty.