Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2008

The need for 'Speed'

The Wachowskis' already-underrated 'Speed Racer' experiment pays off

Speed Racer
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski
Screenplay: Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, based on the animated series created by Tatsuo Yoshia
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, Roger Allam, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Paulie Litt and Richard Roundtree
Rated PG / 2 hours, 15 minutes
Opened May 9, 2008
(out of four)

Adaptation has, itself, adapted. Used to be, if you were taking something and turning it into a movie, all you did was spruce it up a bit, take out the boring bits, streamline the characters and change the ending.

Not completely necessary anymore. Through both technological advances and pure experimentation, the literal adaptation has taken shape. Making one medium look and feel and behave just like another. As if it were always a movie in the first place.

Warren Beatty started along this road 18 years ago on Dick Tracy, with its deliberately cardboard backgrounds designed to replicate comic-book frames.

Then in 2005, Robert Rodriguez brought Frank Miller's Sin City to the big screen - and essentially used the comics themselves as exact storyboards. There wasn't even a screenplay credit. It was a comic book literally brought to life, an interpretation of noir that had not been seen before - at least not on film.

Last year, Zack Snyder's 300 (another Miller comic) followed suit. And now, here's the Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer, which is designed to look exactly like a cartoon without actually being one.

Movies work by movie rules, but maybe they don't have to. At least not in the ways we're used to. Rodriguez certainly felt that way when he made Sin City, finding that the only way to capture the world of the comics was to inhabit all of its characteristics. Speed Racer achieves a similar effectiveness with its animation aesthetic, even if it goes beyond what is technologically or narratively possible for a Saturday morning cartoon.

The intent, and the overall effect, is still there. I can only assume that more experiments along this line - films that incorporate the rules and specifications of entirely different media - are to follow.

It's not just adaptation at this point. It's transfiguration. And it offers a radically altered view of what can (should?) exist in cinema. It offers production designers, cinematographers, directors, editors - in particular anyone involved in the visual aspects of the film - a chance to adopt a new dialect to modern film language.

Using specialized cameras, layering techniques and green-screen technology, the Wachowskis created Speed Racer to essentially be a live-action cartoon. (Some, like myself, would argue that George Lucas did the same thing with his Star Wars prequels, albeit unintentionally and unsuccessfully . . .and without restraint. But that's another story.)

The effect is a jarring one - every frame is saturated with flashing neons and bold blues, purples and reds. "Kaleidoscopic" doesn't even begin to say it. The world the Wachowskis have created is a childlike, futuristic fantasy, sure - but one with a mean streak, too.

There's the wholesome family unit at the center, the Racer Family - Speed (Emile Hirsch), the hotshot race-car driver; the doting, pancake-cooking Mom (Susan Sarandon); Pops (John Goodman), who runs the family's racing business - and on the other side, there's the insidious corporate conglomerate, led by the delightfully odious Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), trying to buy Speed Racer's soul with the promise of trophies and riches.

Yes, it's a light commentary on America as Big Business - the overreaching arm of corporate control infringing, by default, on the time-honored values of honor and fair play. But mostly, it sets up a clear and simple good-vs-evil conflict that is just going to have to be solved by chase scenes, double-crossings, booby traps, shootouts and, yes, more chase scenes. (Hey, this is a racing movie.)

Speed Racer is hyperkinetic pop-art on steroids, and that's part of what makes it so invigorating as a film. It's easy to brush it off as eye candy for the ADD-rattled brain, but . . . well, like I said, it's easy to say that. But you'd be disregarding the vibrant and spectacular world the Wachowskis have created for these characters - and us, more importantly - to inhabit. You won't see a movie more confident in itself all year.

As they've proven before, the Wachowskis are masters of action cinema, not just in the choreography of the action sequences but in every detail of the way those sequences are crafted. How the bad guys got there, what the bad guys are wearing, who's in conflict with who, time, place, etc. - that's all got to be perfectly in place first, and then we get a great action scene or two. Lesser filmmakers too often disregard the set-up to get right to the goods, but not these guys.

Some have denigrated Speed Racer as cheap consumerism passed off as retro kitsch, akin to the postmodern irony of Starsky and Hutch or Dukes of Hazzard. But that's not giving the Wachowskis nearly enough credit. Look, I was just as disappointed in the way their Matrix series ended as you were, so I'm hardly ready to give them a free ride just because they made the most influential sci-fi movie of my generation.

But they haven't cut corners here. Their style is never compromised, always exactly what they want it to be, never trying to be anything but itself. That's always the case in their best work. I think their best film remains their directorial debut, Bound, with its bold color scheme enhancing the Wachowskis' personal take on film noir. Blacks, whites, greys and deep, dark reds are basically the only colors in the entire movie - the only ones that matter anyway. The Wachowskis seemed to be creating their own graphic novel-like aesthetic - only without any pre-existing source material.

With Speed Racer, the source material is certainly there, and that's what we see on the screen: a larger-than-life facsimile of a world that once could only exist on the small screen. This is what the original Speed Racer could only dream of being.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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