03 July, 2008

There’s dangerous work to do

So here's the thing.

I went to see the new Speed Racer film in the weekend. And judging by the number of people in the cinema (maybe 20 people at the main Saturday night screening in the film's opening weekend) the film is going to bomb here just as much as it crashed and burned in the States.

Which is a shame, because Speed Racer is possibly the most insane film I’ve ever seen. I'm not really saying it’s a good film, but my gosh is it a lot of fun. It's an absolute must-see on the big screen, but since most people won't see it on the big screen, I'm just glad it has been made in the high-definition era where Blu-Ray can at least attempt to replicate the experience.

I will confess I wasn't all that interested in the film initially. I watched the show as a kid, but the only thing I remember of the show is the title character (if you showed me a picture of him, I would have recognised him) and the title song (Here he comes! Here comes Speed Racer! He's a demon on wheels!). None of the other characters remained in my memory; in fact I remembered the show so little that, after seeing the trailer, I had to check Wikipedia to discover that there really was a chimp in the TV show. Mainly I just remembered the show as a rather silly forgettable Japanese animated show, and the idea of a live action film seemed a little absurd.

That changed when I first saw the trailer. Here was a garish, hyperactive world in the brightest colours visible to the human eye. Here was an insane world unbound by any rule of physics. Here was an animated world brought to real life, and then completely reworked because it just wasn't sufficiently ridiculous. I fell in love with the trailer, and eagerly looked forward to the film. I wasn't surprised when the film got bad reviews, but I was disappointed when the film completely flopped on release in the States (costing $120 million, it made only $18.5 million in its opening weekend, and even now, nearly two months after release, its worldwide gross is still only $83 million).

And to some degree, I can understand it. There is no substance to the film – characters have all the depth of Saturday morning cartoon characters, and the plotline (Racer has his idealism shattered after discovering his beloved sport is filled with corruption) is not that impressive. As a result, you very quickly learn that any time away from the racetrack feels like wasted time. You never get a sense that it is actually devastating for Speed to discover his all-time-favourite race was fixed, so it's hard to really care. Plus there's the whole backstory of what happened to Speed's brother Rex, which is presented in small snippets through the film, until you want to scream "Just tell us already!" Plus there is the question of Racer X. Matthew Fox gives one of the best performances in the movie, but the film drags out the mystery of his identity far too long. Now, I admit that I knew going into the film who his character was (having discovered it when looking the show up on Wikipedia after seeing the trailer), but the way the film overplays the big mystery I suspect I would have figured it out long before the big reveal. So, to be honest, as storytelling the film is a failure.

But as an experience? As spectacle? The film is quite extraordinary. There's a bold quality to the look of the film – in fact, for the first five or ten minutes, while my eyes were adjusting, I was constantly rubbing my eyes, having difficulty coping with just how bright the film was (my gosh, I have old man eyes). I described it as "garish" earlier, but that term is a negative description that is actually unfair to the film. There is just a mess of colours in every frame, all competing with each other, that it becomes almost ... beautiful isn't the word. Striking, perhaps? Just look at this frame. There is no way it should work, but yet it does, somehow.

As for the action, the race scenes that are the core of the film? There the Wachowskis seem to be just taking the current popularity of the fast cut to extremes. With the kind of hyper-world they're presenting us with, it takes time to actually look at what they're presenting, actually just take in what we're looking at. But the Wachowskis seem determined to deny us this. Instead, they seem to be pushing to discover the shortest possible cut they can make to each shot without sacrificing cinematic coherency. I realise some have argued they don't succeed, but personally, I thought it worked. The film's race scenes always seem like they're about to collapse into incomprehensibility, but they never actually cross the line. The result is that the race scenes are actually enjoyable, in a strange way. I don't know why, but I liked them.

The film ultimately becomes an exercise in excess. The Wachowskis seem to be asking, "How much can we get away with." And the answer, at least from my point of view, is: a hell of a lot. It's big, absurd, and audacious. No-one's ever going to say they lacked imagination with this one. I'm not going to argue it's a great film. I'm not even going to argue that it's a good film. It just is what it is – a live-action Japanese cartoon for children. But, and I'm a bit ashamed to say this, I really enjoyed it. And don't be surprised if this time next year I own the film on Blu-Ray. I'll just tell people it's a demo disc ... yeah, that'll be my story.

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