With all deliberate "Speed"

image The latest film from the Wachowski brothers (creator/directors of the Matrix Trilogy) is all but on its way out of first-run theaters, having received a double body slam from both critics and audiences over the last three weeks.  (It’s currently made less than $35 million domestically.)  I was pumped as ever for this film from the moment the first tantalizing teaser trailer hit the web.  I’ve never seen a single episode of the 1960s cartoon series on which the film is based, but the visuals looked incredibly neat and inventive.

As the release date of May 9 drew closer, I was first disappointed, then dismayed, to see the overflowing negative critical reaction to the movie.  It presently stands at 35% on the Tomatometer, which measures the number of positive reviews (59) to the overall total (167).  Not only were the reviews negative, but some reviewers went to great lengths to castigate this film and everyone who thought otherwise.  Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal had this to say:

This toxic admixture of computer-generated frenzy and live-action torpor succeeds in being, almost simultaneously, genuinely painful — the esthetic equivalent of needles in eyeballs — and weirdly benumbing, like eye candy laced with lidocaine. ‘The Matrix’ gave us the trippy pleasure of bullet time, a super-slo-mo vision of the world. ‘Speed Racer’ gives us the paradox of a drive time that’s super-fast and all but interminable. If its target audience turns out in vast numbers, we’ll be looking at child endangerment on a global scale.

‘Speed Racer’ is a nightmare vision of children’s entertainment. It’s overstimulation as an organizing principle — colors that call for a riot squad (who knew that pastels could be assaultive?); pacing that approaches the precipice of looniness; a moral tale — Speed’s virtue versus the racing world’s vice — told in stentorian tones better suited to propaganda. The visual style, descended from anime, seeks to up the videogame ante, but the movie misreads that medium too. Gamers enjoy a sense of control, whether real or illusory. Audiences here must sit in passive stupefaction. ‘I go to the races to watch you make art,’ Speed’s mother tells him, ‘and it’s beautiful, inspiring, everything art should be.’ She lies. It’s exactly what art isn’t. It’s chaos.

Then, after the movie tanked in its opening weekend, he published a self-congratulatory “told you so” piece as if to justify that Critics Do Matter.  The headline read, “Kids 1, Chaos 0.”

Scared off by the negative reviews, I skipped the movie.  But then I started reading the reaction of “regular guys” (who are actually quite intelligent and thoughtful about movies) on one of my favorite hangout sites, Home Theater Forum, and I began to wonder if I should see it anyway.  After being underwhelmed by the latest Indy movie, I decided to give it a chance.

What I saw was nothing less than the best film I’ve seen this year.  Period.

Going back to all those caustic reviews, I wonder, did I see a different movie than they did?  Far from seeing chaos on the screen, what I saw was a marvelously crafted film filled with heart, humor, pathos, and some of the best film editing I’ve ever seen.  Like the racing cars it portrays, the movie flips, doubles-back, twists, turns, and propels itself forward like a rocket.  But it never felt messy or incoherent.  There isn’t a single bad actor or groan-inducing moment in this film.  Everything just flows together beautifully.

As an aside, it’s wonderful to finally see a complete and fully functioning nuclear family in the movies again.  John Goodman is just terrific as Pops Racer, and Susan Sarandon makes a pretty swell mom.  Even the requisite little kid and his pet monkey (Spritle and Chimm-Chimm, respectively) are among the least annoying kid-pet combos I’ve seen.  Christina Ricci uses her expressive eyes to great effect, and Emile Hirsch and Matthew Fox acquit themselves very well as Speed Racer and Racer X.  Roger Allam chews the scenery appropriately as bad guy E. P. Royalton, and everyone else involved looks to be having a great time.

Watching this movie, it’s clear that the Wachowskis understand the language of film.  They know the rules so well that they know exactly how to break them too.  The visual style of the movie may put some people off, but it’s never haphazard or incoherent.  At 135 minutes long, my fear was that it would sag occasionally, but the pacing was just perfect.  I never once thought about checking my watch to see how much movie was left.

I really need to do a more in-depth analysis of this movie, because in a moment I’m going to drop a ridiculously high score and leave you all wondering if I’ve been smoking something.  But to do that I’m going to need several screenshots, I think.  Now, I’m realistic enough to know that no one’s likely to see the movie based on this one review, coming as it does in the face of so many negative reviews and it’s poor box office performance.  But I’m telling you, the critics were collectively wrong on this one.  So when you see “Speed Racer” on the video store shelves or in your local Redbox in a few months, don’t just roll your eyes and move on.  Give it a chance.  You might like it.  You just might love it.

9.5/10

Additional reading: DAYS OF SPEED RACER at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

2 Responses to “With all deliberate "Speed"”

  1. I’ve been waiting to see how you felt about Speed Racer. I saw it the opening weekend, so I’ve been waiting a while now. :) Personally, I couldn’t place it on the spectrum of “good or bad.” I’ve been calling it an experience. Particularly in its visual design, it is radically not realistic/hyper-realistic simultaneously. Personally, I recommend it–again, as an experience, not necessarily as a film.

  2. I think it’s excellent as both. Most of the criticism of the film has been directed at its rapid-fire cuts and pan edits during the race scenes, but there’s plenty of “traditional” filmmaking at work too – enough so that I’m convinced the Wachowskis knew exactly what they were doing, and weren’t just settling for “chaos,” as Morgenstern put it.

    It isn’t just a special effects bonanza, though I foresee it becoming THE reference disc when it arrives on DVD/Blu-ray in a few months. There’s a lot of heart here too, and that’s how it endeared itself to me.

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