Ansen Review: 'Speed Racer' Is Fun Abstraction

The narrowing line between live action and animation is obliterated spectacularly in "Speed Racer," the Wachowski Brothers ("The Matrix") eyepopping update of the 1960s manga and anime TV series created by Tatsuo Yoshida. The Wachowskis have whipped up a 136-minute silly symphony of fluorescent colors, gravity-defying car races and cartoonish villains, all served up in a fluid, dreamlike style as sophisticated as the storyline is aggressively childish. This is a movie aimed squarely at the family audience—if the characters' names Mom Racer and Pop Racer (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon) weren't tip-off enough, the scene-stealing pet chimp should give you fair warning.

The gifted race-car driver Speed (Emile Hirsch, looking almost as lean as he did in "Into the Wild," but more clean-cut) is the pure sportsman in a corrupt world of fixed races, dirty drivers (whose cars come equipped with lethal weapons) and multimillion-dollar corporate sponsors. It's a sign of Speed's purity that he turns down a sponsorship offer from the ruthless, money-worshiping head of Royalton Industries (Roger Allam), who responds to this rebuff by threatening to ruin both Speed and his family's proudly independent Racing Motors company. Lest there be any doubt that the "Matrix" creators, former indie filmmakers working in the heart of the studio system, see this as a parable of their own careers, Mom Racer tells her talented son, "You're an artist … What you do is beautiful and inspiring."

"Speed Racer" creates a timeless, visually seductive world suspended somewhere between the pop '60s and the sci-fi future. Its biggest disappointment, strangely enough, is its raison d'être--the races themselves. They lack suspense. The danger of creating a videogame world, where the limitless freedom of CGI replaces the laws of physics, is that the competitions lack any real sense of risk. These flying, flipping racing cars, seemingly impervious to metal-crunching collisions, belong more to the world of Tom and Jerry or the Road Runner than they do to "The French Connection" or "Bullitt." (Even the races in Pixar's "Cars" seemed more down to earth.) "Speed Racer" is sweet and flashy and often fun, but its thrills are oddly abstract—more esthetic than visceral. It's the colors you remember, not the crashes.

Curiously enough, David Mamet's "Redbelt" tells exactly the same story as "Speed Racer," albeit in a style that couldn't be more different. His hero, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is another sportsman of unshakable principles, a teacher of Brazilian jiujitsu forced to confront a corrupt world of fixed fights and money-grubbing mixed-martial-arts promoters. Instead of CGI, Mamet prefers hand-to-hand combat and the sharp chop of his trademark macho dialogue. But his vision of the pure and the good is not far removed from "Speed Racer"'s anticorporate (and corporate-sponsored) message. Like Speed, Mike is Mamet's portrait of the artist battling for his integrity in a fallen world. The writer-director overloads his tricky plot with backstabbing Hollywood skullduggery—his hero is lured into the movie world when he saves the skin of a movie star (Tim Allen) in a bar fight—creating mysteries that never get satisfyingly explained in his surprisingly Hollywoodish third act. But thanks to Ejiofor's wonderful performance--his easy, commanding body language wordlessly convinces you of his character's nobility—and Mamet's knowing take on the arcane world of Brazilian jiujitsu, "Redbelt" never loses its muscular hold on your attention.

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