By: Bill Nelson
The Wachowskis were once among the most visionary directors in Hollywood. They started out as a screenwriting duo, penning the highly underrated Sylvester Stallone/Antonio Banderas vehicle Assassins, then moved to directing, igniting the screen with the smoldering performances of Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon in Bound. Bound set them on a collision course with legendary producer Joel Silver and all of a sudden Hollywood was never the same. The Matrix was a film that in many ways came out of left field. The story was based on a comic book series of which almost no one had ever heard. The marketing was intriguing but did little to explain why we should see it. In large part, The Matrix owes its success to a lack of knowledge. The internet was still young enough in 1999 that movie spoilers were virtually non-existent, the Wachowskis, though rising stars, didn’t have the name power to immediately be hounded because of a flick they were making. The Matrix was one of the last movies to be made where word of mouth following its release was just as crucial to its success as any pre-release marketing and it sky-rocketed the Wachowskis’ careers into the stratosphere even as they were still developing their skills. As a result, I believe, their later films suffered. They were expected to deliver mega-blockbusters with every new film but no one factored in the fluke factor of The Matrix’s success.
The Wachowskis followed The Matrix with the less than stellar Matrix Reloaded and dismal Matrix Revolutions, then stayed out of the picture until it was announced they’d be re-teaming with Joel Silver on the big screen adaptation of long time anime fave Speed Racer. It seemed to be a match made in heaven, pairing the Wachowskis’ visual style with the unfettered zaniness of one of Japan’s silliest animes. So what went wrong?
In a lot of ways, we got the movie we were promised. Visually, the movie is astounding. The Wachowskis managed to capture the insanity of the races that make up the bulk of the original cartoon. Crazy contraptions and cut throat manuevers in tracks that defy the laws of physics amp up the excitement every time we see them and the directors wisely keep us focused on the action.
The problem of Speed Racer comes from a lack of story. Speed is wooed by a corporate sponsor with unclear but evil designs. Speed agrees only to seem to lose everything forcing him to work with rivals to get his family’s good name back. It’s about as thin as you can get and though the Wachowskis try to flesh it out with Speed’s guilt over the death of his older brother, there’s little driving this movie forward.
Of course we wouldn’t be talking about the movie if it wasn’t worth watching for some reason. The most obvious reason are the races. The visuals are spectacular and the cartoon racing gags actually translate quite well. Then there’s the casting coup of getting John Goodman as Pops Racer. Not only is he a perfect physical fit, but he brings a hopeful and exuberant yet world weary quality to the role. Goodman anchors the movie in a way that Emile Hirsch as Speed never quite does. Then there’s Spritle and Chim Chim. They are the most annoying characters from the cartoon and generally are in the movie as well, but they get the single best non-racing scene in the movie when they pretend to be ninjas while sneaking onto the villain’s plane in a poorly planned spying attempt.
There’s a lot to be desired for in the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Fans of the anime are right to hate it, but it’s not the horrible film the fanboys would have you believe. It’s the kind of mindless action movie that you can step back from the story and just enjoy the pretty scenery. Even an underused Christina Ricci and a poorly used Matthew Fox still make this a generally fun popcorn flick. The good news is that the Wachowskis’ stock is back on the rise. They continue to be among the best visual directors in Hollywood and with Jupiter Rising they stand poised to finally prove that The Matrix wasn’t a complete fluke. I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping that they do.
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