By Ray Pride
“Pink is the navy blue of India.”
That’s one of the better-known epigrams of the late, compulsively pulse-taking fashion editor Diana Vreeland. An observation that washed over me after leaving a Thursday night preview of “Speed Racer” in IMAX: this thundering puppy is rife with cultural references and multiple languages and bursting design details that should appeal to a broad cross-section of the moviegoing world. (Including India, which could take the great washes of pink as more holy than girly.)
Or at least it seemed that way until the weekend, when the opening worldwide grosses suggested those potentially intrigued audiences would not be dragged screaming and spending into the theater. (There’s no way they could already have known about the repugnant tubby little brother and his gum-baring chimpanzee sidekick.)
In their first directorial effort since ending “The Matrix” trilogy—“V for Vendetta” was shepherded by their longtime second James McTeigue—the Chicago-born Wachowskis dig deep into the traditions and stylistics of anime and their own cultural toybox to create a bold yet somehow hermetic movie with fantastically intricate design and technique that does not fall into any known demographic. (Plus, Emile Hirsch, who plays Speed in his first role since “Into the Wild,” fired his agents on Monday, a sort of review without words.) “Deliciously aggravating” would be a compliment in my devil’s dictionary, but I doubt it would send anyone else to the Cineplex door. While there were jokes from the elder heights of film cricketry about sugar rushes and candy coatings and epileptic fits, “Speed Racer” is a less-than-obliterating experience. Noisy and bursting with eyeball kicks, “Speed Racer” is a Ritalin-deprived formalist treat, like David LaChappelle compositions brought to asexual life. (First reviews made a lot of candy and cereal metaphors, so let’s not fail the assignment by noting that the bold color palette is often like Fruit Loops in a morphine drip. “Futurama” on a mild dose of LSD?)
But there aren’t that many formalism-oriented, technique-loving viewers, it seems, near the 3,850 locations in North America, who might appreciate, say, such iconic-unironic elements as the Wachowskis’ use of a digital “wipe” across the screen, making transitions by passing close-ups of characters from right to left, much in the way that layers of cels function in traditional sorts of film animation. (Imagine the characters in low-budget TV-made series like the original “Speed Racer” or “Johnny Quest” forever moving across planes rather than into and out of the perceived “ground” of the screen.)
More bits: the opening credits for Warner Bros., co-financier Village Roadshow and Silver Pictures are festooned with Oskar Fischinger-style bursts of geometric animation (the sprightliest logo-damage since the neon bars slashing the logos at the front of “Oceans 13”). The impossibly blue skies in early flashbacks are the blue of a Benadryl commercial in CGI heaven. The detestable boy-tubby little brother, Spritle, brandishes Paul Frank monkey pajamas while the one-note chimpanzee, Chim-Chim, wears similar flannel pjs with a boy’s head on them. The blend of hypersaturated green against red, impossible in strictly photochemical terms, is as lush as that contrast in “Amelie.” A brassy exclamation of “Omigod! Was that a ninja?!” matches the self-consciously unselfconscious “Oh, that kid is wily.” (And I would like to visit the unlikely “Aqueducts of Sassicaia” to find how intoxicating its waters might be.)
As in “Fight Club” and a few other recent pictures, “Speed Racer” is also a deca-million-dollar fable about how corporations can stifle creativity—“That’s because the sponsors control the media!” The mixed message has its charm; while Motorola walkie-talkies and Cheerios get overt product placement, most of the brands on view are keening gibberish, towering neon monuments in more alphabets and languages than I could recognize, and there are myriad appearances by announcers and characters speaking languages other than English. It seems less a commercial strategy by the Wachowskis than a philosophical one: to incorporate as many forms of communication and color-blind ethnicity as possible, much as they did with the “Matrix” pictures. There are other oddities, including a bribe-by-plushie interlude more adult than some of the movie’s dispensable bumbling gangster caricatures. The Racer X character is also given an eccentric late passage of explaining the positive aspects of his radical identity-assignment surgery to his younger brother.
“It’s a whole new world, baby, it’s a whole new world,” sounds self-congratulatory out of the mouth of a character after the gravitationally impossible, beautifully stitched final race, yet there are elements of technique here that will be as influential, to the right crew members of future films, as the infernal “bullet time” effect of “The Matrix.” Whether or not “Speed Racer” makes its financiers’ money back, it’s still going to be more influential than any undiscerning reviewer realizes.
“Speed Racer” is now playing in 35mm and IMAX.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.