When I first heard that the Wachowski Brothers were getting in on the whole Hollywood has run out of ideas beyond remaking TV shows as films, older films and – most egregiously – remaking animated films (and shorts) into live action movies, my reaction was probably similar to everyone else’s…. a long audible groan followed by a dramatic What The Fuck Already?
And by now, everyone knows the result – last May’s release of the summer blockbuster – turned -fiasco Speed Racer. Trounced by nearly universally horrible reviews, I don’t think it made it to the actual first day of summer. In fact I don’t think I know anyone who saw it.
I hate, maybe even more than most, the whole animation to live action thing. Flintstones?!?! Thunderbirds?!?! And don’t get me started on the multiple Dr. Seuss travesties that have been shoved down our throats. And, as much as I loved Bound and The Matrix, few films have drawn such loathing from me as the second matrix film (I can’t even be bothered to look up it’s exact name…. Revisited? Reviewed? Reviled?). So this all shaped up for me as STAY FAR FAR AWAY.
Yet for some reason, this flick kept calling to me. Maybe it was a stray review that not only loved the film, but called it an almost avant garde masterpiece. There were other random reviews here and there that at worst didn’t seem to loathe it nearly as much as most mainstream reviewers did, and at best seemed to dig this picture, almost in spite of themselves.
But then that’s the thing about the “arts”…. in our rush to judge things right away, and even moreso trying to put them in perspective, our initial opinions may not be our final opinions. Critics savaged Led Zeppelin for their entire career, yet the records sold. Now many/most of those same critics love and revere the Zep. Their 3 disc live record from a few years ago (How The West Was Won) was even called the best reviewed album of 2003 according to the folks at metacritic.com.
And I always love to point at the Raging Bull example…. when released in 1980, this first Scorcese/De Niro/Pesci picture was considered mediocre at best. But by the end of the 80s, when critics were releasing their Best Films of the 1980s lists, Raging Bull was at or near the top of nearly every list. I’m sure the fact that the next pairing of those three, in Goodfellas, was a current release and a huge hit didn’t hurt this reappraisal, but still.
Which brings me to Speed Racer, in all it’s artificial neon glory. Watching Swing Time (Fred Astaire &Ginger Rogers, 1936) with my pops this past weekend, we both commented on how, despite the fantastic possibilities, we’ve come to loath CGI special effects, and how cool it was to see these actual crazy sets and dance routines. Speed Racer is all CGI BUT, unlike most modern Hollywood’s use of CGI, Speed Racer is trying to look anything but realistic.
It is going for that over the top, crazed artificial soundstage setup that worked so well for films like the original Willy Wonka, and Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. What’s more, is it is updating one of the first (if not the first and surely the first US import) japanese anime’s from the 60s. Much as I loved Speed Racer as a kid, even then I realized how crappy the animation was. But there was something about the vibe it created.
The Wachowski’s don’t recreate it in their film adaptation. But in trying to capture it, they captured something else. The stilted delivery of mostly corny dialogue, the day glow colors, the characters not being fully drawn people, etc…. It all works in the context of the film.
Even the crazy 3 million miles a minute action of the racing…. I liken it to my discovery of the band Living Colour and their fiery guitar player, Vernon Reid. Apart from being impressed with the technique, talent and practice time it took for the so-called shredders (think Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai), what they actually played has always left me cold. Vernon Reid, on the other hand, came in and played with the same speed, but it was this with this wreckless abandon of notes and noise… no nice classically based arpeggiations, just a violent fury of angry emotion. Yes, it was often ugly and disjointed, but it felt like such an antidote to the normal shredding to me that I thought it was both an angry retort to them AND a revelation.
And this is how I feel about the action in Speed Racer. In an age where the quick cutting of action sequences, combined with what CGI allows a director to do, we’ve been inundated with a frenzy of action sequences where nobody knows just what the hell is going on, no matter how cool the effects look. All the action scenes – and especially the opening car chase scene – of Quantum Of Solace are perfect examples of this…. But, much like Vernon Reid’s guitar playing, I feel like Speed Racer’s action sequences are the violent reaction to these crazy, overcaffeinated sequences.
In short, I think that Speed Racer, while falling far short of a La Dolce Vita or Citizen Kane, is a far better film than people gave it credit for when it came out and flopped last spring. And I think in time, we will see more and more people revise their original opinions.