No, Speed Racer, No

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

For those of us who gripe that modern sci-fi and fantasy films consist of actors emoting gamely opposite Players to be Animated Later, the prospect of the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer was, paradoxically, tantalizing: This time, no one would be trying to pass off a cyber-universe as anything but virtual. From the previews it was clear that the people were props in an ecstatically cartoony world with its own laws of time, space, and motion. Instead of actors superimposed over futuristic Deco backdrops, as in the handsome but congealed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Speed Racer would be organically fake, an unbridled orgy of artifice.

Orgy, hell: The film is like a nightmare in which you’re trapped in an arcade with screens on all sides and no eyelids. Based on an elemental but happily streamlined Japanese cartoon (an anime precursor), it’s an eyesore, a shambles, with incoherent action and ear-buckling dialogue. The colors flatten everything: The cars and costumes look like they’ve been filled in with crayons—and not from the big 64-box but the dinky eight-pack. The plot is relatively intricate, which means the Wachowskis leap back and forth between hyperspeedy races and static scenes in which marooned actors labor to find a style as campy as the décor.

Speed Racer, a merchandiser’s dream, is all about the perils of spurning a vast, merchandising corporation (not unlike Time Warner, in whose skyscraper I watched the film). Speed (Emile Hirsch) resists the blandishments of Royalton Industries (represented by Roger Allam in a pus-yellow jacket, lavender tie, and pink cravat) and stubbornly sticks with his mom-and-pop organization: Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops (John Goodman), along with his pudgy kid brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt) and a fervent chimpanzee. Chaste girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) buttresses Speed’s integrity—as does the ramrod Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) and the masked anti-corporate vigilante known as Racer X (Matthew Fox). Dirty trickster capitalist tools—who likely destroyed the reputation of Speed’s late brother, Rex Racer—constantly nip at his wheels.

Speed Racer has moments of bliss, which are, not coincidentally, its simplest. Little Spritle envisions himself and his monkey as martial-arts superheroes in a bit that conjures up the carefree color-splashes of kindergartners. Young Speed spies the adoring Trixie on the playground and flowers behind her head morph deliriously into hearts. This is truly a new world—one where filmmakers can layer images the way music producers layer voices and instruments. In The Matrix, the Wachowskis and their computer-effects whiz John Gaeta gave us the gold standard of universe-as-simulacrum movies. But here, as in the lumbering Matrix sequels, the giddiness is gone: “Free your mind” has been replaced with “Overwork your programmers.” They’ve become fussy and solemn—Lucasoids.

What’s fascinating about Speed Racer is that the Wachowskis and Gaeta don’t seem to know the first thing about storyboarding a race. You can forgive a cheap live-action movie for moments of disorientation—the filmmakers are limited by their coverage, by what they actually shot. But how to explain an entirely computerized race in which you can’t tell where anyone is in relation to anyone else? In the high-speed wrecks, no one dies—the drivers are instantly encased in foamy balls and swirl down a drain in the track. Why isn’t this the coolest thing imaginable? Because the crashes are so hard to follow that you barely register what happened. The filmmakers have put all their creative energy into transitions. A radio conversation among drivers is a series of close-ups without cuts: The camera whooshes from the car in back to the car in front to the car in back without a second in between. Amazing! Flashbacks unfold on the screen while the camera is revolving in a 360-degree arc—they finish at the instant we get back to the speaker. Neat! But what does it say when transitions are more thrilling than the scenes on either side of them?

Christina Ricci has little to do but look peppy, but she has the perfect heart-shaped face for live-action anime—all pop-out eyes. (Her orbs make Susan Sarandon’s googlers seem ordinary.) Emile Hirsch doesn’t come through and not because he acts badly; it’s because his face doesn’t read the way Ricci’s does. Almost nothing reads. In an early scene, Rex instructs Speed to close his eyes and “listen” to his car—it’s not a machine, he says, it’s a “living, breathing” thing. This is the philosophical core of Speed Racer: the idea that all the molecules of the universe are in motion, that everything is alive. But it’s hard to peddle Zen Oneness if your state-of-the-art technological marvel is dead as a dodo.

At last year’s Virginia Film Festival, I met the director Nick Broomfield, there to show his freshly minted atrocity-of-war drama Battle for Haditha, and we talked a bit about the controversy over Brian De Palma’s uncompromisingly brutal Redacted—which also builds to the murder of Iraqi civilians by U.S. military personnel. The conversation was off the record, and Broomfield was extremely circumspect. But it’s fair to say he saw a distinction between his own approach and that of De Palma, who rubbed our noses in the sadism of the killers. Now that I’ve seen the film, it’s clear that Broomfield’s take is closer to HBO’s The Wire, in that events are depicted from several different angles and no perspective is complete: The point is not to focus on individuals but on the ways in which their actions feed the larger (diseased) organism.

Battle for Haditha dramatizes the (true) story of a roadside bomb that killed a U.S. soldier and the retaliation that took the lives of 24 Iraqi men, women, and children. Here are the salient points: The two men who plant the bomb hate Al Qaeda (which would kill them just for drinking alcohol) but hate Americans more—they disbanded the army in which the older man served and left him with nothing. The family who live across the street from where the bomb is planted and know that it’s there have the choice of telling the Americans, in which case the insurgents will kill them, or saying nothing, in which case the Americans might kill them—or arrest them as collaborators and do who-knows-what. They can’t run because the outside world isn’t safe, but staying put could be just as deadly. The American soldiers, meanwhile, have a scary amount of unfocused energy: They’re always playing rough, hostile practical jokes on one another, and the corporal (Elliot Ruiz) who ends up doing most of the killing is beginning to buckle under all his bad dreams. He asks for counseling and is coldly refused. The message is “Do your job.” His murderousness is shocking—he’s a man possessed—but this is his tragedy, too.

Broomfield is known for documentaries, and his filmmaking here has a live-wire feel. The camera is handheld but never ostentatiously quivery: Its restlessness conveys its characters’ chaotic emotions. You get edgy alongside the Americans as they scan buildings for snipers. You wince for the Iraqis roughly pulled from their cars and searched, rifles pointing in their faces. (To think we get indignant about taking off our shoes at airports.) You exhale in anticipation with the bombers on the balcony of an apartment complex, looking up and down the road below for signs of an American convoy.

The bombers’ bitter talk as they finger the cell phone that will trigger the explosion is a little “on the nose”—the movie has too many thesis lines. But even when the dialogue is stilted, the acting and directing take the starch out of it. Battle for Haditha has some of the raw energy of Sam Fuller’s war pictures, which weren’t subtle but left you energized by their ambivalence (there was no good or evil). It’s a hell of a picture.

Before the Rains has a cool, evocative mixture of beauty and ominousness. It’s set in lush Kerala, in southern India, in 1937, around the time the Raj was having its first, well-earned jitters about the future of Great Britain as a colonial power. This isn’t the best moment to make a major financial investment in the country, but the upper-crust Englishman Henry Moores (Linus Roache) has lofty dreams: He’s determined to whack out a road up the side of a mountain to create a spice empire. He’s a rather decent egg—extravagantly complimentary toward his Indian assistant, T.K. (Rahul Bose), who designs the road to resist the monsoon flooding. And he’s no racist: He’s madly in love with his married housekeeper, Sajani (Nandita Das), whom he drives into the sacred woods beside a waterfall to procure honey. She licks it off his fingers, he licks it off hers … all very lyrical but for the two little kids in loincloths watching.

This is another movie in which an illicit affair opens economic chasms and catalyzes disasters, and it’s in danger of being damned with faint praise as a guilty-colonialist Merchant-Ivory period piece. It is—it’s even presented by Merchant Ivory Productions. But the screenplay, by Cathy Rabin and Dan Verete, builds nicely, and the cinematographer turned director, Santosh Sivan, likes to break up the verdant images with bits of encroaching nature: a frog, some bees, the flies on a cow’s eye. Before the Rains is more engrossing as the focus shifts from Henry, who’s not a bad man, just a spineless one, to Sajani, who thinks her English lover will give her a freedom she has never had—and finally to T.K., who gets stuck cleaning up his sahib’s mess. Rahul Bose has a winning presence—eager with a touch of wariness or wary with a touch of eagerness, and never entirely at home. He keeps the movie from seeming too comfy—a good thing.

Famke Janssen has a great long body for leaning over a pool table, and as a homeless pool and card hustler in Turn the River, she’s amazingly vivid. She plays a woman whose son was effectively pried out of her hands by the father’s religious-gorgon mom (Lois Smith). But she kept in touch with the boy (Jaymie Dornan), and now she needs $50,000 to kidnap him from his ineffectual father (Matt Ross) and whisk him over the Canadian border. The movie, the directorial debut of the actor Chris Eigeman, has a mixture of edginess and melancholy that’s beautifully sustained until the climax, when the tang of realism becomes the cudgel of melodrama. But the actors around Janssen are up to her: the droopily expressive Dornan, the prize ham Rip Torn as the pool-hall owner and surrogate papa, and especially a hangdog Terry Kinney in a role that’s all subtext—he’s making her fake passports but seems to be carrying a whopper of a torch for her. It’s no wonder he’s smitten. I’d be prepared to lose a lot of money just to watch her clear the table.

When anime demigod Tatsuo Yoshida created the manga original of Speed Racer in the sixties, he called it Mach GoGoGo and took inspiration from two American films: Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas and Sean Connery’s Goldfinger. The English-dubbed version debuted in 1967, and the Speed Racer franchise has proved ever resilient, with reruns on MTV and the Cartoon Network. It’s also a natural bonanza for merchandising. The marketing of the Wachowski brothers’ feature may top $80 million, with tie-ins from General Mills, McDonald’s, Mattel, Lego—like Speed Racer Fruit Gushers and his-and-her Happy Meals.

Speed Racer
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski.
Warner Bros. PG.

Battle for Haditha
Directed by Nick Broomfield.
Hanway Films. Not Rated.

Before the Rains
Directed by Santosh Sivan.
Merchant Ivory Prods. PG-13.

Turn the River
Directed by Chris Eigeman.
Screen Media Films. R.


No, Speed Racer, No