It's hard to say whether the Wachowski brothers' live action take on the Japanese Speed Racer cartoons is more irritating because it looks like a Hot Wheels video game or because the brothers seem to think that there's a powerful family drama humming away beneath the flashing lights and spinning wheels.
The Racer family is all about cars: Pops Racer (John Goodman) builds them, oldest son Rex (Scott Porter) drives them, younger son Speed (Nicholas Elai) can't think about anything else and Mom (Susan Sarandon) provides sandwiches and unflagging encouragement. But the joy goes out of the family business when Rex and Pops have a falling out; Rex goes on to develop a reputation as a dirty driver before dying in a fiery crash during the arduous Casa Cristo 5000 rally, the family rift still unresolved.
Some ten years later, Speed (Emile Hirsch) has matured into one of the World Racing League's best drivers, thanks in part to his zen-like rapport with the Mach 5, his father's masterpiece, and the family has expanded to include Speed's spunky girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), bratty little brother Spritle (Paulie Ltt) and a hyperactive chimpanzee named Chim-Chim. Speed is being courted by smarmy corporate fat cat E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), whose drivers are consistent WRL winners, but when he declines to continue racing under the Racer family banner, Royalton turns ugly: He's going to make sure Speed never wins another race, and ruin his family into the bargain. Enter Inspector Detector (Benno Furman) and Racer X (Matthew Fox), supposedly the sport's bad guy but actually an undercover operative trying to expose corporate race fixing: If Speed will work with them, corrupt creeps like Royalton will be forced out. Various contrived complications later, Speed finds himself competing in the Casa Cristo, on a team with Racer X – whom he's begun to suspect might be his brother in disguise – and Taejo Togokahn (Korean pop star Rain), the ambitious scion of another racing dynasty.
The trouble with SPEED can be summed up in the Wachowskis' apparent belief that "You don't race because you're a driver. You race because you're driven" is a pop mantra whose resonance rivals, "With great power comes great responsibility." It's not, and the sight of a top-flight cast gamely trying to bring emotional depth to cartoon characters is disheartening. Credit where it's due: Ricci was born to play an anime girl, and Fox not only manages to wear Racer X's vaguely fetishistic costume without looking pervy but also modulates his voice into a pitch-perfect replica of the tones 1960s-era American dubbing actors favored for older characters. But the look trumps everything, from the aggressively saturated colors and retro-cool CGI backgrounds to the digital rendering that puts the foreground, background and middle ground of every image into equally sharp focus, like a cartoon. It's kind of cool, but it's also more than a little like being trapped in a pinball machine while being asked to feel the Racer family's pain for the better part of two hours. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh